Small Project Planning Techniques

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Here is how to use a few Small Project Planning Techniques for success on your projects. New project managers often make the mistake of trying to apply every technique in their project management textbooks. So they wind up burying small projects under too many meetings and too much paperwork. They should ignore the  fancy processes, techniques and reports in the academic textbooks and stick to the basics.

We’ll define small projects as those done within your “home” department with your boss as the project sponsor. Here are some general guidelines for using the Small Project Planning Techniques. Your project plan should be one page or one and a half pages at the most. There is no need to bury the boss in a large document filled with boilerplate crap. Instead, your one-page project plan will focus on the key deliverables and decisions that will drive the project to success. You should also limit the number and length of planning meetings. A 15 to 20 minute meeting with the boss to define the scope and major deliverables should be enough. You just need to ask the right questions to get the boss to define what the boss wants the project to deliver.  Then you break it down into tasks and create a work breakdown structure (WBS). Next, you specify the resources required and estimate the amount of work for each task. Then you develop a schedule. Let’s talk more about each of these five techniques.

Small Project Planning Technique #1: Define the Scope

You must meet with the project sponsor, the boss, to define the scope of the small project planning techniquesproject. The scope is not a list of everything you’re going to do. It is the end result(s) the project should produce.  You get that definition and the acceptance criteria by asking your boss the right questions.

As an example, the boss tells you he/she wants the file room cleaned up. The scope is not a list of activities like: picking up files off the floor, alphabetizing files, inserting updates into files, etc. Those are activities that you may do to reach the scope, but they are not the scope – the end result. You need to ask the right questions to find out what the boss wants at the end of the project. What you need are acceptance criteria. These are the metrics the boss will use to measure if the project was a success.  After asking the right questions, you may find that the boss wants more than just a cleaned up file room. The scope that the boss really wants is, “Employees find the file they need in less than 60 seconds.” It’s a project management best practice to find that out before you start work.

That “find the file in less than 60 seconds,” is a good definition of the project’s scope because it is objectively measurable. All good scope statements have a metric that mathematically defines exactly what the project sponsor wants the project to deliver. You have to ask the sponsor the right questions about the end result of the project so you get an objectively measurable definition of the project’s scope.

Why is this objectively measurable scope so important? Because it is impossible to deliver the result the sponsor wants if you don’t know what it is. If you settle for a scope that is vague and subject to interpretation like, “Clean up the file room,” you will not have a clear target at which to aim. It’s likely your interpretation of what “clean up” means is very different from the boss’ definition. Sadly, you will find that out when they tell you the project was a failure because it didn’t achieve what they wanted.

So you must ask questions of the boss/sponsor to specifically define the end result in measurable terms. And you must try to avoid getting into a detailed discussion of what activities the sponsor wants you to do.

Small Project Planning Technique #2: Break Down the Scope for the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

You might do this step in the same meeting with the sponsor as Technique #1. You will break down the scope and get the sponsor’s agreement on the major deliverables the project has to produce. These deliverables will get you from where you are now to the end result, the project scope. You’ll start by breaking the scope down into 4 to 7 major deliverables. On some small projects, you may be able to work on all the major deliverables at the same time. On other projects, you will work on them one after another. Each of the major deliverables is a metric, just like the scope. You’ll again ask the sponsor questions to break down the scope of “Employees find the file they need in less than 60 seconds.” The following list of major deliverables will become the start of the work breakdown structure (WBS):

  • All files on the shelves in alphabetical order
  • Updates to files are current within 4 business hours
  • Employees return files to the file room within 24 hours
  • File room staff can retrieve files in less than 60 seconds.

You will then break down those major deliverables to the next level of detail. They become the individual assignments for each of your team members. You’ll also define each assignment with a metric that measures the team member’s success on their deliverable.

Small Project Planning Technique #3: Identify Resources and Estimate Work

For each assignment or task in the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), you will identify the necessary skills and the right people to do the work that will produce the deliverable.

After ensuring that each team member is clear on what they have to produce, you work with them to develop estimates of the number of hours of work it will take them to produce the deliverable. It’s important to involve each team member in this estimating process so the team members feel some commitment to the estimates that you’ll use in your project schedule. You will present these resource requirements, the number of people and hours of work, to the project sponsor for their approval.

Small Project Planning Technique #4: Identify Major Risks for Deliverables

Working with the team member who is accountable for each deliverable in the work breakdown structure (WBS), you will discuss the major risks that, if they occur, would increase the amount of work it will take to produce the deliverable. You’ll identify these risks now so that you can develop strategies to avoid, or at least lessen, the impact of the risks on the project. Identified risks and their mitigation strategies are an important element in the final project plan. In our file room project, you might identify risks that threaten the scope like the following:

  • Risk A – employees do not return files within 24 hours.
  • Risk Response A – send managers a report of missing files checked out by their subordinates.
  • Risk B – high absenteeism in the file room causes the staff to fall behind on re-filing.
  • Risk Response B – arrange for a temporary staffing firm to provide replacement staff.

Small Project Planning Technique #5: Develop the Schedule

The last component in the project plan is the project schedule. You should build a schedule for even the smallest projects. And you should use project management software because it saves enormous amounts of time.

You’ll use the work breakdown structure (WBS), the resource assignments and the work estimates you created earlier. In the software you’ll link them with predecessor relationships. Predecessor relationships are very important because they determine the sequence of tasks, the order in which they are done.

You will enter all the tasks in the software, then set up the predecessor relationships. This is much simpler than it sounds. For example, you tell the software that task #5 can’t start until task #4 is finished. When you put predecessor relationships into the project schedule, the software can update the schedule every week when you enter the data on what has actually happened on each task.

See how these planning components come together in the project planning techniques template below.

Small Project Planning Techniques Template

  1. Define the project scope as a deliverable with measurable acceptance criteria
    Employees find the file they need in less than 60 seconds.
  2. Break down the scope into its major deliverables for the work breakdown structure (WBS)
    a. All files on the shelves in alphabetical order
    b. Updates to files are current within 4 business hours
    c. Employees return files to the file room within 24 hours
    d. File room staff can retrieve files in less than 60 seconds.
  3. Identify the major project risks and their responses
    a. Employees do not return file within 24 hours. Risk response – send managers a report of missing files checked out by their subordinates.
    b. High absenteeism in the file room causes the staff to fall behind on re-filing. Risk response – arrange for a temporary staffing firm to provide replacement staff.
  4. Identify the project team resource requirements with rough estimates of the time commitment
    Bill – full time 3 months
    Mary – half time 2 months
    Raj – full time 3 months
    Moussa – quarter time 4 months
    Henry – full time one week
  5. Build the schedule using project management software

You can learn how to use all these Small Project Planning Techniques in our online Project Management Basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. More information on the lean project methodology

Take a look at the course in your specialty.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on