Project Planning from the Top Down

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

In many organizations, managers (and especially senior managers) view project planning as a waste of time. To them, the project plan is needless. They want to “start work immediately without wasting time in useless planning meetings and creating mounds of paperwork.”

Project Planning: A Waste of Time?

Why do many managers and executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time?  Why are they unwilling to invest their time in project planning? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • They have never seen a project properly planned so they have no understanding of how smoothly things can run.
  • Project planning requires that the sponsor and stakeholders know what business result they want the project to produce. Often executives start projects to fix a problem they have just heard about. They have no idea how to solve it or define what they consider to be a fix.
  • The sponsor and stakeholders are unwilling to make commitments about the acceptance criteria for the project’s deliverables. They are unwilling to take the risk of specifying precisely what they want. Project Plan Template Main Page

Project Planning: A Waste of Time Reason #1

The most common reason why they have never seen a project properly planned is that the organization doesn’t exercise control or require justification for starting a new project. There is no reason to plan if people can start a project any time they want. The organization also doesn’t require a return on investment (payback) from a project.

On the other hand, executives must plan their projects if the organization requires the following:

  • a cost-benefit analysis for new projects
  • a clear specification for the business results the project will produce
  • its cost and duration.

Project Planning: A Waste of Time Reason #2

A second and very common reason for these “waste of time” attitudes is that many executives have never sponsored, run or even worked on a properly planned project. As a result, they don’t know the benefits a properly planned project can deliver. Their projects usually miss their planned completion dates and budgets. They rarely deliver the project scope or any business value. Project teams don’t know what they are accountable for delivering, what performance level the project manager expects or how the project manager will evaluate their work. As a result, the project manager must tell the team members what to do each week.

The executives also have no practical experience with change control. They don’t realize that a well-conceived project plan gives them and the project manager tools to manage changes to the scope, budget, quality and resources.

Project Planning: What Is Top-Down Planning?

Despite the reasons why the executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time and resources, you (as the project manager) must persuade them of the benefits of planning a project from the top down. When executives want to start a project, you must describe the right steps and explain how that process benefits the organization. Finally, you must discuss the top-down project planning techniques, documents and meetings. Executives also need to understand that you cannot use the same project planning techniques for every project. You should not bury a small project in needless paperwork. But a large strategic project will suffer if there isn’t sufficient planning, control and risk management.

A well-planned project uses the top-down project planning technique. Top-down project planning starts with a project scope that is defined in measurable terms. That means the sponsor identifies the overall scope of the project and the deliverable(s) the project has to produce. Then you and the sponsor identify the acceptance criteria that the executives will use to approve those deliverables. Next you break the criteria down into deliverables for each assignment. This lets you and every project team member know exactly what the executives want in a deliverable before you start work. On a well-run project, you and the team members don’t have to stop work to figure out what to do next. Each team member’s assignment or task is specifically defined so they know what they must deliver before they begin work.

project planning

Project teams that must stop and figure out what to do next are working on a project with a “To Do” list plan. In this situation, the project manager planned the first thing they’re going to do, then the second and then the third. Things get a little vague after that so the team members must stop work and ask the PM what to do next. That process continues until the planned completion date is looming on the horizon. At that point, the PM and team members must stop work and plan what they can quickly finish before the completion date. This is a disaster for the project and the PM’s career.

Project Planning: Top-Down Benefits

When you use top-down project planning, you make as many of the decisions as possible during the planning process which is before you ever start work. When the team does start work, they focus on executing the plan, not re-planning the project. You save several hours of meetings, talks and arguments for every hour you spend planning before the work actually begins.

Top-down project planning also saves you from doing the wrong things on the project. That’s because you have done all the thinking on the deliverables before you start work. And that means you don’t incur the costs of having to produce “missing” deliverables at the last moment. In top-down project planning you start with a clear definition of the project’s scope. Then you can break it down into high-level deliverables. You continue to break these down into sub-deliverables until you get to the level of tasks you assign to the team members.

Project Planning Summary

You are certain to have a failed project if you fall into the trap of starting work immediately without using the top-down project planning technique. The executives who forced you to start work quickly will be exceedingly dissatisfied with the results as well as the money and the time spent to produce them. The only way out of this situation is to explain to the project executives that success is a direct result of a solid planning effort.  Working from the top down, you and the sponsor must define the scope of the work and the acceptance criteria that the project stakeholders will use to judge its success. The key to top-down project planning is having a clear scope definition that you can break down into high-level deliverables and sub-deliverables. Then you have the basis for a work breakdown structure (WBS) that minimizes the amount of work required to successfully deliver the project’s scope.

Consider our online project management courses to learn how to use all the tools and techniques for top-down project management planning. You’ll work privately with Dick Billows, PMP, as your instructor and coach. You begin when you wish and control the pace and schedule. You can have as many phone calls and live video conferences with Dick as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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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 60 short project management 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 are on Amazon.com