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Project Plan for Small Projects: Fast Food Approach

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

Creating the Project Plan for a small project is difficult for many reasons.  One of them is that the boss wants you to start as soon as possible without “wasting” a lot of time with meetings and paperwork.  Also the boss usually doesn’t give small projects much thought before dumping them in your lap. You clearly see that this is a recipe for failure.

Good project managers know that for every minute you spend on your project plan you save 10 minutes during the execution of the actual project. The reason for that 10 to 1 payback is that a plan allows the team to focus on executing rather than deciding what they’re going to do next.  A project plan also communicates to everyone what you’re going to do and how you’re not going to do it.  So how do you deal with the boss and still get even a basic plan?

Project Plan: Drive-thru Window at “Projects Are Us” Fast Food

You can do your project plan like the order-taker at a fast food drive-thru window. The fast food approach to planning is focused on getting started quickly by finding out what you. Here’s an example of how to apply that approach to a new Supply Room Project the boss emailed you about. You’d go to his office and the conversation would go like this:

Project Manager: “Exactly what do you want me to deliver on the last day of the project?”

Boss: “I want you to clean up the file room!”

Project Manager: “That’s what you want me to do but what is the end result you want me to deliver?  What should I be able to show you at the end of the project?”

Boss: “I am too busy for games.  I want you to show me a clean file room!”

Project Manager: “What is your standard for a clean file room?”

Boss, irked: “Nothing on the floor and everything stacked neatly in part number order”

Project Manager: “I can deliver that.” But then you remember how the fast food folks at the drive-thru window always ask if they can supersize it. So you add, “Do you also want to make it easier to find supplies? Not everyone knows the numbers of the parts.”

Boss, smiling for the first time: “Good thinking. I get a lot of complaints about things being hard to find.  Let’s kill two birds with one stone.”

Project Manager: “Great. Give them to me and I will suggest some additional deliverables before I leave today!”

What did the project manager accomplish here?  First, he/she improved the chance of project success.  They would have been near zero if the project manager had just started work with a scope of “clean up the file room.” Second, the project manager enhanced their credibility by asking some good questions that earned the boss’s praise. The approach used here appeals to a lot of bosses who sponsor projects. Particularly the ones who often complain about the planning meetings and paperwork that are necessary to start a project. In the fast food approach, you’ll forget all that PMBOK® stuff and reach agreement with the boss on the project’s scope. The project manager’s “supersize” question got a great reaction from the boss and they could continue talking about what business value the project has to deliver. The the project manager can get to work.

You can learn these skills for small projects in our project management basics courses.

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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Project Plan: Surface Expectation Differences Early

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

Stakeholders and project managers often judge the success of a project plan meeting by how well everyone gets along. But they are making a mistake. One of the key outcomes from the planning process should be to surface any conflicts about the scope, deliverables and resources.  It is better to have those disagreements aired and resolved during the planning phase than have them erupt half way through the project. Project Plan Main Page

Project Plan Step One: Surface Expectation Differences

First, as the project manager, you do not take sides in the conflict.  Your best position is that you don’t care which side wins. You just want the conflict resolved before work begins on the project. Basically, you are on the sidelines for the whole project plan meeting. But you periodically sprinkle gasoline on any smoldering embers of conflict until they are all put out.

Why should you go to this trouble?  Why not smooth-over any conflicts about expectations and requirements now? That will get the project plan approved and let you start work.  That’s what the boss wants. The answer is that the conflicts you smooth-over in the project planning meeting always rear their ugly heads halfway through the project. Then they slow the work down and may even cause problems with the availability of team resources.  Experienced project managers know that there will be plenty of unexpected conflicts that arise as the project progresses. You don’t need to have known conflicts festering and bursting into flames late in the project. Resolving these expectation differences now, during the planning meeting, is a form of risk avoidance.

Project Plan Step Two: Draft the Project Plan

The second part of this technique is in how you write your draft project plan.  As an example, on a customer service project you would never define a deliverable with wording like, “Improve the quality of answers given to customers who call Customer Service.” That’s a terrible way to define a deliverable. It’s just motherhood and apple pie mush.  It’s not specific enough for anyone to disagree or raise differences of opinion. It allows every stakeholder to define their own expectation for the accuracy level. And their expectations will vary wildly.  You need to surface and resolve these differences, then get agreement on their expectations of the deliverable.

Here is another problem with the “Improve quality of the answers given to customers who call Customer Service” statement. It doesn’t give you or the team any of idea what the accuracy level goal is on the answers given to customers. Here is a better way to define the deliverable; “Improve the accuracy of answers given to customers from 61% to 71%.  Some stakeholders may want 90% accuracy and others will want less.  But now the discussion can focus on the differences in cost and time (duration) between various specific accuracy levels.project plan

Once again, your role is not to take sides or voice your own opinion.  Instead, your job is to quantify the tradeoffs in terms of cost and time between the various accuracy levels. You use project management software to model these options. For example, you would say, “Going to 91% accuracy would increase costs  by $18,000 and increase the project duration by 8 weeks.  Is that what you want?” The one issue you are very firm on is that no improvement in accuracy is free. The tradeoff always has a cost and duration impact. Your stance on this is very important.  If you let your stakeholders believe that they can change the project scope for free, you will face a constant flow of change requests throughout the project. And, stakeholders will be angry if you tell them there is a cost.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics 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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Project Plan Template

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

You can use this project plan template to define the project scope and identify major deliverables. You can also use it to manage the project risks and constraints as well as the resources it requires. On every new project, you need to decide what Project Plan Template elements to include, what to exclude and how to develop them on each particular project.   For 90% of the projects done in most organizations, your project plan should be 1–2 pages long. Managers are more likely to read a short, concise document.

Project Plan Template 1st Step – Define the Scope

You need to define the project scope as a deliverable with measurable acceptance criteria. To do that, you talk with the project sponsor, ask questions and then develop the scope statement. Next you define 4 to 7 high-level deliverables and their associated acceptance criteria. Those criteria tell everyone exactly what the project must deliver. They also help you control expectations by making it clear what the project will and won’t deliver. Fast Track Project Plans

When you ask the sponsor what he or she wants, they might say something like, “We really need to have this project cut costs for us.” You immediately try to get to quantified acceptance criteria by asking, “How much cost reduction would make this project a success?”

When the sponsor says, “$15,000 of cost reductions,” you have the scope definition with an acceptance criterion that tells you how much cost reduction the project has to deliver. This is the key to the project plan template. You can then drive the rest of the project from that number. (On larger projects consider the scope reach) How to evaluate a project plan

This is a simple example of top-down planning but most project managers don’t ask the right questions. They are satisfied with a To Do list of the first dozen things the project sponsor wants them to do. That is a terrible basis for your a project plan and it’s disastrous if you start work with no more information than a To Do list. To successfully plan a project and have high odds of project success, you need to know what the boss wants in measurable terms.  How to Plan Top Down

Project Plan Template 2nd Step – Define Major Deliverables

You then break down the measurable project scope into its major supporting deliverables.  There are several different ways to do this. The simplest is where the high-level deliverables literally add up to the scope and its acceptance criteria. Therefore, in a conversation with the sponsor, you might talk about how to break down the scope. The sponsor might say, “I want each department to develop their share of the overall savings.” During further discussion, you might identify the savings amount for each of those departments. You use them as your high-level deliverables with the acceptance criteria being the dollar amount of savings each department has to produce.

You see the major deliverables below and how they add up to the project scope of $15,000 of cost reductions.

  • Reduce order intake monthly operating expense by $4,000
  • Reduce production monthly operating expense by $2,000
  • Reduce order production monthly operating expense by $3,000
  • Reduce inventory monthly operating expense by $2,000
  • Reduce shipping monthly operating expense by $4,000  project plan template

Project Plan Template 3rd Step – Identify Major Risks

Depending on the size of the project, you may invest a great deal of time identifying the risks that threaten the project. You can do this in brainstorming sessions with the project team and stakeholders. But on a small project, you might develop your list of risks over coffee. In either case, you’ll include them in the project plan along with ideas for mitigating those risks. See example risks you would enter into the project plan template below:

  •  Layoffs may result in labor actions which disrupt operations
  •  Production may drop as much as 25% for 3 – 5 months.

Project Plan Template 4th Step – Identify Project Team Resource Requirements

Using the major deliverables, you now identify the number of hours of work and the skill sets required to create each deliverable. You would total those estimates up to the level of the entire project and make very rough estimates of the people and skills required. Below are examples that you would enter into the project plan template.

  •  Bill – full time 3 months
  •  Mary – half time 2 months
  •  Raj – full time 3 months
  •  Sharmaine – quarter time 4 months
  •  Henry – full time one week

Project Plan Template 5th Step – Break Down to Individual Tasks

The last of the five steps in creating the project plan is to decompose those major deliverables developed in the second step. You break them down into smaller deliverables until you reach the level of a deliverable that’s an appropriate assignment for one team member. That’s the level of your work breakdown structure (WBS). It completes the project planning process in the project plan template. Then you can move on to the scheduling process.

Project Plan Template in Practice

In many organizations, project planning is a combination of vague generalities about the objective of the project. But the one thing that is often rock solid is the completion date. That date is frequently the only measurable project result. Because project managers don’t know what the executives want them to deliver, they have no ability to exercise control over the scope of the project. As a result, the objectives change weekly. Project team member assignments are vague and ever-changing. That is why estimating is inaccurate and why 70% of projects fail when they are planned that way. Let’s look at the best practices for project planning and then look at a project plan template for projects of different size.

Project Plan Template “Best Practices” In the Real World

Very often, project managers face a difficult organizational environment. The organization lacks the processes to do project management right and the executives don’t know how to play their role correctly. In these situations, the PMs need best practices that allow them to do things effectively, even though the executives and the organization’s processes are obstacles and not assets. The project plan template will help. The purpose of this intense project planning process is to make all the decisions before starting work. The approach of making the project plan and then executing it is much more efficient than a “plan as you go” process. However, it is very difficult in many organizations.

For this approach to work, the organization, its executives and project managers must do things correctly. That is, the executives must specify exactly what they want the project to deliver. They cannot make the project assignment using vague generalities where the only thing that is specific is the due date. The organization must have processes for evaluating and prioritizing projects and giving them access to resources based on those priorities. Last, the project managers must know how to do top-down project planning. That means they are able to take the clear acceptance criteria, specified by the executive/sponsor, and decompose it down to the level of specific assignments for each team member. Most organizations fail to meet one or more of these criteria and that is why we rarely see an ideal project planning process. There are two major ways to go Large Project Planning Techniques or for less paperwork and meetings,  Small Project Planning Techniques.

Project Plan Templates by Scale of the Project

We utilize three tiers of project plans techniques in the project plan template. They depend on the scale and complexity of the project:

  • Tier 1: Small Project Plans – Done within a department with the boss as the sponsor.
  • Tier 2: Medium Project Plans – Affect multiple departments or done for customers/clients.
  • Tier 3: Strategic Project Plans – Organization-wide projects with long-term effects.shutterstock_96175697

Identify Stakeholders

  • Tier 1 – Identifying stakeholders is not necessary on an in-department project where the manager is the primary stakeholder.
  • Tier 2 – We must identify stakeholders across the organization and find out their requirements early. Requirements cost more late in the project than they would have at the beginning.
  • Tier three – Requires an elaborate process of surveys and interviews to identify internal and external stakeholders so we can consider their requirements.

Project Business Case

  • Tier 1 – We often skip this since we don’t need formal project approval on an in-department project.
  • Tier 2 – Organizations with sound project management processes require a business case to justify a project’s priority versus other projects in the portfolio.
  • Tier 3 – The scale of financial and human resources usually requires detailed justification and demonstration of the strategic impact of the project.

Project Charter

  • Tier 1 – A 1-page broadbrush plan with achievement network, risks, resources and PM authority.
  • Tier 2 – This project charter addresses the project acceptance criteria, business justification and rough estimates of the resource requirements (human and financial).
  • Tier 3 – The size of the investment in these strategic projects usually requires extensive documentation of risks, benefits and impacts on other strategic initiatives and the entire organization.

Gather Project Requirements

  • Tier 1 – Usually limited to a meeting with the boss where the PM defines the project’s scope and decomposes it into the major deliverables.
  • Tier 2 – We survey project stakeholders for their requirements. Each requirement is reviewed and either included or explicitly excluded from the project.
  • Tier 3 – We follow an extensive process of identifying and analyzing requirements gathered from the stakeholders. It includes assessing stakeholders in terms of their interests and their ability to influence the project’s success.

Project Scope Statement

  • Tier 1 – A short statement of the project’s desired result and the acceptance criteria.
  • Tier 2 – A more detailed scope statement that also covers assumptions, constraints and the major deliverables.
  • Tier 3 – A full scope baseline development with exploration of alternative means of delivering the project scope.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

  • Tier 1 – Decompose high-level deliverables into the deliverable for each team member’s assignment.
  • Tier 2 – Decompose high-level deliverables and use WBS sections from previous projects that are similar.
  • Tier 3 – Usually developed in sections with the people responsible for that major deliverable doing the decomposition.

Project Plan Template Summary

This project plan template uses a five-step project planning process. You can modify the planning to fit projects of different sizes depending on their complexity. You can learn to use this template 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.  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
Posted on

Project Plan in 5 Steps

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

You can produce an excellent project plan that can fit on one side of one piece of paper and take less than an hour to create. It will be suitable for 90% of the projects that most organization do. The key to making this work is for you and the project sponsor to play your roles properly. The project sponsor (that’s the boss, executive or customer who wants the project done) has to define the business result that the project must produce. That business result is the scope of the project and it has to be a metric. The scope must have acceptance criteria that define success in objective, measurable terms. If the sponsor prefers to “plan as we go,” and “stay flexible so we can adjust,” they are not fulfilling their role on the project. It would be foolish to start work on the project without knowing where you need to be at the end.   Main Project Planning Page

Your role as the project manager is to get the sponsor to tell you the acceptance criteria-type of scope definition. Then you and the sponsor break the scope down into the major deliverables the project has to produce. These deliverables the stepping stones for how the project will move from where it is now to the end result the sponsor defined. You are not doing your job if you start work before you have a clearly defined scope with major deliverables. Let’s look at the steps you need to follow.

Project Plan Step 1 – Defining the Scope

Defining the scope involves gaining agreement on the metric that the sponsor (the boss, executive or customer) will use to measure the end result of the project. Project planSponsor who have a successful track record for initiating projects know that you (the project manager) need a clear definition of the project scope that includes a success metric. If the sponsor doesn’t know how to play his or her role, anonymously send them a link to this article. You don’t want your project to fail because the sponsor has a failing record on their projects.

Once you have that success metric, you can create the project plans and schedules rather easily. The difficulty comes when people try to skip this first step or when the sponsor doesn’t know how (or is unwilling) to define the project’s success. Without that scope metric, the rest of the project pieces are useless. Here’s an example of a small project to illustrate how this is done.

A project manager gets a phone call from a project sponsor who says, “I’d like you to run a project for me to deal with our problems getting office supplies out of the warehouse.”

The project manager goes to the sponsor’s office and during the discussion, asks open-ended questions aimed at defining the scope. It’s very possible that the sponsor has started the conversation about the project without having a clear picture of the end result they want. The project manager has to ask questions which help the sponsor define the project’s end result. The project manager asks how performance of the warehouse will be different after the project is complete. The sponsor says, “We can’t run out of supplies so often; we have to reduce the number of these stock-outs. And it shouldn’t take people as long to find what they need.” The project manager should follow up with questions like, “How often do we run out of supplies now?  What’s an acceptable number of stock-outs each month?” The project manager might also ask, “How long does it currently take to find supply items and how long should it take?”

That’s a good example of the project manager asking polite and respectful questions in an attempt to get the sponsor to be specific about the project’s scope. Let’s say the sponsor says people should be able to find the supply they want in less than 120 seconds 90% of the time. That is a crystal clear metric or acceptance criteria for the project scope.

Project Plan Step 2 – Breaking Down the Scope into Major Deliverables

With the scope defined as a metric which the warehouse project must produce, the project manager will work with the sponsor to break that scope into 4 to 7 major, high-level deliverables. They will lead from where the warehouse performance is now to the end result the sponsor wants. The PM may talk to people in the warehouse to find out why it to take so long for people to find the supplies they need. The PM may also ask the warehouse staff for their ideas about how to reduce the time needed to get a supply. The project manager may come back to the sponsor with some suggestions based on this fact-finding process. They may suggest the following high-level deliverables:
1. Increase the lighting in the warehouse to an average of 65 lumens
2. Track the location of all supply items with 95% accuracy on a commercial PC inventory system. The system cost should not exceed $500.
3. Discard any supply items in the inventory that have not been used in the last four years.
4. Redesign the inventory layout so the most frequently utilized supplies can be retrieved in less than 30 seconds.
5. Distribute new procedures for using the supply warehouse to all employees.

Each of those high-level deliverables has an acceptance criteria that can be objectively measured. The project manager reviews the deliverables with the project sponsor. The sponsor may change or adjust any of the deliverable’s metrics to fit his/her assessment of the situation. When the sponsor signs off on the scope and the high-level deliverables that will lead to it, the project manager has a strong start on the project plan and can move on to the planning details. The key point here is that the sponsor and project manager worked top-down; starting from the end result down to the contributing deliverables that will help them get there.

Project Plan Step 3 – Breaking Down the Major Deliverables

The next step is for the project manager to continue to break down those major deliverables into smaller deliverables. The lowest level of deliverables should be suitable for assigning to an individual. These assignments should also be measured deliverables so the team members know what is expected of them (what they must produce) before they start work. These deliverables will become tasks in the work breakdown structure (WBS).  They are also the basis for estimating the amount of work, cost and duration of each deliverable.

Project Plan Step 4 – Estimating

Once this breakdown into smaller deliverables is complete, the project manager has an assignment for each team member. The next step is to meet with the people accountable for producing each of those deliverables. Each of the tasks (the lowest level deliverables in the work breakdown structure) will have an estimate of the amount of work and  the duration. The project manager engages the team members in this estimation process. Involving each team member in this part of the process produces more accurate estimates. The team members also become more committed to producing their deliverables in the estimated amount of time. The PM will enter this data into project management software to create the schedule and budget. Using project management software saves project managers a great deal of time. Software options include Microsoft Project and several low cost or free scheduling applications that are available on the web. Any of those are suitable, especially for a small project.The project manager  will track each task’s actual work and duration against the plan.

Project Plan Step 5 – Final Approval By the Sponsor

The last step in developing the project plan is to secure the sponsor’s final approval on the project scope, major deliverables, budget and the planned duration of the work. With that approval, the project plan is finished and the project manager can begin work.

At the beginning of your course, 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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Project Plan Blunder #2 – Turf Wars

A project sponsor is meeting with the department managers who are her subordinates. She’s called them together to tell them their company is receiving terrible publicity. Their horrid customer service has made the front page of the local paper. She needs them to create a project plan to improve their customer service.

The sponsor explains that they need an integrated effort. Each of the four departments needs to cooperate with the others to bring about a significant improvement in the company’s customer service. When the project manager suggests that people in the various departments will work on tasks he assigns them, all hell breaks loose. The turf wars are intense. None of the managers accept the idea that people can work effectively on a cross-functional team. The project sponsor makes more speeches about the need for cooperation. The project manager tries to explain that isolated efforts in each department will not bring about the strategic improvement that the company needs.

Project Plans and Turf Wars

Project plan turf wars happen in many organizations.  When political battles exist between departments, the warring sides often suggest separate projects in each of the departments. They think that eliminates the need for cross-functional cooperation. But that never works. It also doesn’t work if there is a separate project manager in each department with the overall project manager coordinating all their efforts.  The idea of separate projects and project managers sounds good to people caught in inter-departmental conflicts. But successful project managers know that the way to succeed in cross-functional projects is not to subdivide them. That’s the easy step to take. It allows them to avoid solving the basic conflicts that exist.

Let’s look at the video and see how the project manager and sponsor do with their project plan. What would you do to end these turf wars and give the project some chance of succeeding?

Project Planning Blunders: Stakeholder Turf Wars

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Top Down Project Plan

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

Creating the project plan is the first step in every project. The best practice is a Top Down Project Plan. To be successful as a project manager, you always need a project plan but length is not important. An excellent project plan of one page works well. The important thing about the project plan is the thinking that goes into it.   Project Planning Main Page

Top Down Project Plan: A Best Practice 

The top down planning technique means we begin the planning process by knowing the result the customer or boss wants from the project. Part defining the result is spelling out the specific measurable criteria we (and the sponsor) will use to decide if the project succeeded. It can be something simple like, “Employees can get the supplies they need from the supply room in less than two minutes.” What’s important about that kind of definition is that it tells people what they’re going to get from the project.  As importantly, it tells them what they are not going to get. If there are managers who think employees should get their supplies in one minute, we need to clarify their expectations before we start work.

The project result is at the top of the project planning pyramid. We start there and then break it down into smaller pieces until we get to the level of team member assignments that are deliverables. We now have a pyramid with the overall project result at the top and smaller deliverables below. That hierarchy is our work breakdown structure (WBS). It’s the spine of the project. We add flesh to it by assigning people to the deliverables. Then we work with them to estimate the time and effort to produce the deliverables. One important piece is that we define every deliverable with measured acceptance criteria.  That way the boss knows what the project will deliver. And everybody working on the project knows precisely what he or she has to do. Everyone knows this before we start work.

The top down project plan needs to communicate several important things to the team and everyone who’s affected by the project. As we just discussed, we need to define what the project is going to deliver to the organization. Part of that definition is to spell out the specific measurable criteria we (and the sponsor) will use to decide if the project is a success. The measure of success can be something simple like, “Employees can get the supplies they need from the supply room in less than two minutes.” What’s important about that kind of definition is that it tells people what they’re going to get from the project.  As importantly, it tells them what they are not going to get. If there are managers who think employees should get their supplies in one minute, we need to clarify their expectations before we start work.

Second, the top down project plan also needs to communicate what resources we need to produce the planned result. How much time and money do we need? We also need to explain what authority we need to manage the project. We might ask for the authority to assign work directly to the project team members, even if they work in another department. Other items we might address are the risks the project faces and the help we need from management to defend the project from those risks.

Remember, this top down project plan can be short; one page. We project managers get into trouble when we write so much detail that no one reads it. When that happens, we can’t manage our stakeholders’ expectations for what they’re going to get and what they must invest to get it. Small Project Plan Techniques

Project Plan: The Wrong Way

The wrong way to do a project plan is to start by identifying the first task we’re going to do, then the second, then the third and so on. This “to do” list approach is easy and doesn’t need much thinking. But it has some downfalls. When we use this approach, we tend to include a lot of good ideas. But we don’t limit our plan to what we absolutely must do to deliver the result the boss wants. Since we don’t know exactly what the boss wants, we can’t decide how to deliver it. That results in doing many things that aren’t necessary. We also waste a lot of time and resources adding things to the project later on. These are vital things that we discovered too late. The “to do” list approach to project planning is faster but we wind up with projects that take longer and cost more than they should.

Top Down Project Plan: How To Do It

You may have managed projects for years using “seat of your pants” techniques. And you may have had some success.  Long-term success, however, requires you to use project planning best practices. Those are the skills needed to consistently deliver the scope on time and within budget. For small projects at an entry-level, a five-step method is enough. Here are the steps:top down project plan

  1. Planning – focused on a clear scope and a deliverable-oriented project plan and work breakdown structure (WBS). You also plan how you’re are going to do the next four steps.
  2. Scheduling and assigning work – create a schedule with project software so you can stay on top of your project’s progress. Assign work to your team members and give them a crystal-clear understanding of what you expect before they even start work.
  3. Estimating how much work it will take to produce each deliverable. It’s always best if the team member who’s going to do the work takes part in this estimating process. It’s more accurate and you get their commitment.
  4. Tracking progress against the plan and spotting variances – use project management software and status data from your team to spot problems early. This avoids unpleasant surprises late in the project.
  5. Designing corrective action and reporting status – design corrective action when you find problems. Then you clearly report the problems and propose solution options to the project sponsor.

You can learn this top down planning process in our online project management courses. You will be able to use these techniques so your projects finish on time and within budget. You’ll work privately with an expert project manager who is your coach and instructor. You may have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. You begin when you wish and work on it at your pace and as your schedule allows. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Project Management Foundations – First Project Video

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

Every project manager learns the Project Management Foundations on their first project.  These foundations give them the skills they will use on every project they manage. Our video is about a brand-new project manager starting her first project with an executive who doesn’t know how to correctly sponsor the project. In fact this executive, Mr. Cordalon,  has the worst project track record in the entire organization.  Our novice project manager has no idea how to handle him. But fortunately she gets advice from two senior project managers in the project office. They have dealt with Mr. Cordalon on several projects and they know how to handle him.

Project Management Foundations – The Scope and Deliverables

Mr. Cordalon tries to wiggle out of providing the project scope. He gives the new project manager nothing but the project’s completion date and its acronym.  Armed with the advice of the two experienced project managers, the new project manager goes back to him and asks the right questions to properly define the project scope. In the next step, the rookie leads Mr. Cordalon through the process of defining the project’s high level deliverables, constraints and risks.

Project Management Foundations – Identify Stakeholders and Requirements

The project moves on to more of the Project Management Foundations which include identifying the stakeholders and gathering their requirements.  Mr. Cordalon wants to keep the project a secret so there’s no interference from other departments. Guided by her two behind-the-scenes advisers, the new project manager persuades process as a new project manager learns the Project Management Foundations of her professionhim that there is value in identifying and actively managing the project stakeholders. The new project manager successfully gathers requirements from the users and stakeholders. The project pros teach her how to evaluate requirements in terms of whether they are necessary to deliver the project scope.

Project Management Foundations – WBS and Estimates

In the rest of the movie, the new project manager assembles her project team. She has them participate in the formulation of the work breakdown structure (WBS) and leads them through the process of estimating the duration of their tasks.

In summary, the video takes you step-by-step through the

Project Management Foundations: A Project Manager's 1st Project

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What is Scope Creep?

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

What is scope creep? It is a parasite which, if the project manager and sponsor let it flourish, busts budgets and overruns schedules. It doesn’t attack the project once, it attacks dozens or hundreds of times. In each of these attacks, a good idea is added to the project that increases the amount of work to be done as well as the deliverables that must be produced.  However, the approved schedule and budget are not increased to accommodate these additions. Every individual scope creep attack seems innocent but it is not.   Scope Control

What is Scope Creep?: A Good Idea to Add to the Project

Let’s look at a common situation. A project stakeholder says, “Hey there, project manager. I think it would be a good idea if we added foreign language training to the class we’re going to give our customer service reps. I was thinking Laotian and Vietnamese; a lot of customers speak those languages.”

Now the project manager can go one of two ways. First, she might say, “Well that is a good idea. But it’s not in the budget and the customer service reps don’t need those language skills to hit our project’s scope. I’ll write up an analysis of the additional cost of that language training and how much it will delay our completion date. I’ll be happy to go over it with you before we go talk to the project sponsor. But to be honest, I’m going to recommend that the sponsor not approve that addition. The schedule and budget are very tight so there’s just no room.”

That approach often works and the stakeholder says, “Okay forget about it”

What is Scope Creep When There’s No Crystal-Clear Scope?

The project manager is stuck if there is not a good scope definition. She says, “No we can’t make any changes to the project at this point. It’s just too late. It’s a good idea but I’m sorry.”

The stakeholder says, “Oh I’m sure you can squeeze it in. You’ve got all these people working on the project.”

The project manager replies, “I’m sorry but I can’t. The schedule is just too tight.”

The stakeholder scoffs at the project manager and says, “All right, I’ll just go see your boss. He obviously has a better perspective on things than you do.”

If the project sponsor reacts in the customary way, he will tell the project manager, “Oh come on, you’ve got plenty of slack in the schedule. Go ahead and add it. We need to keep the stakeholders happy.”

How Does Scope Creep Begin?

The project manager adds the foreign language training to the project but, most importantly, doesn’t receive any approval for finishing later than planned or spending more budget than originally approved. Without some support from the project sponsor, it’s unlikely that the project manager will continue to battle with the stakeholders over the “good ideas” they want to add to the project. Eventually, it’s just easier to add them even though the project manager knows they will make the project finish late and over budget. On some projects there are scope changes every week, or even several times a week.

what is scope creepBut the project stakeholders are not the only source of scope creep. The project team may add their own “good ideas” to their tasks without the project manager knowing about it. If a more elegant technical solution occurs to the system developers doing a task, they may just add the new features. This source of scope creep can be even more costly than the additional tasks stakeholders want to add. If the project manager has not done a good job of clearly defining the deliverables the team members have to produce, the door to team members’ scope creep is wide open. Once team members and stakeholders understand that they can add to the scope of the project or their task, the volume of scope creep increases. Some project managers think if they approve just the first couple of requests scope creep will go away. Feeding a shark doesn’t make it go away either.

Reporting Scope Creep Variances to Schedule and Budget

The project manager’s next, and possibly last, opportunity to stop scope creep is in the status reports. The project manager gets up and says, “I am forecasting a three-week delay on the project completion date and a $22,000 overrun on the budget as a result of scope changes that have been approved over the last couple of weeks.”
This strategy of reporting schedule and budget variances brings the scope creep into the light of day. It may possibly get the attention of senior management and other stakeholders. On the other hand, it may make the project sponsor very angry because he knows he approved those changes. In that situation, it’s not unusual for the project sponsor to demand that any mention of approved changes be removed from the status reports. That’s a serious ethical issue for the organization. Reporting the schedule and budget impacts of scope creep publicly and quantifying the impact of these approved scope changes may be the only way to tamp down scope creep.
One of the ways that people try to end scope creep is by saying things like, “There will be no changes to this project plan or schedule.” Dramatic statements like that never work. The additions to the project scope will start immediately after those words are spoken (and often by the executive or sponsor who said them). What that person meant was that no one besides them could make any changes to the project scope.

Trying to prohibit all changes to the project is fruitless and actually has very adverse consequences. Changes will be made to every project. The challenge is to avoid scope creep which adds things to the project without any additional budget or duration.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

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Small Project Plan

Do I Really Need a Project Plan for a Small Project?

So they assigned you a small project to straighten up the supply room. Only two of you are going to work on it. It shouldn’t take more than two weeks. Everybody’s talking about how you need to get this one out of the way so the company can start the really important projects. These factors create the temptation to quickly begin work without a project plan because it’s just a small project.  You’ll “plan as we go,” and get this little project out of the way. Besides, the sponsor and everybody else who even knows about this will be very happy if you start quickly. They say, “Hell, you know how to straighten up the supply room so just get started!” But starting fast without a plan is always the wrong thing to do.

Is the Project Plan for a Small Project the Same As the Plan for a Big Project?

The plan for a small project is very different from the plan for a large project.  The project plan for the effort described above will fit on one side Small project planof a piece of paper. It will contain just these elements:

  • the project scope defined by an acceptance criteria
  • the resources required to deliver that scope
  • the major risks
  • the project constraints
  • the sponsor’s and stakeholders’ sign offs

Let’s talk about these elements one at a time. Why do you need the project scope? It would be foolish to begin work without having the sponsor’s agreement on the deliverable you have to produce.  So you go to the boss and say, “I need to get the scope of this project pinned down.”

The boss gives a sigh of exasperation and looks up at the ceiling before saying to you, “Clean up the office supply room. I’m wasting way too much time dealing with people’s complaints about it.”

Your ears perk up at the mention of complaints about the supply room. So you ask, “Do you want me to just clean it up or do you want to reduce the number of complaints you’re getting?”
The boss says, “You’re right. I don’t want you to just give the supply room a fast cleanup. I want to reduce the number of complaints.”
You ask, “How many complaints do you get now and what would be an acceptable number?”
The boss consults the computer on his desk and says, “I got 25 complaints last week. I don’t expect perfection but if you could cut that down to 3 I’d be real happy with this project.”
“Great,” you say. “So the scope is 3 or fewer complaints a week about the supply room.”
The boss nods agreement and you enter that in your tablet. Then you ask, “What are they complaining about?”
The boss leans back to think and says, “A lot of different things. But 15 of the 25 complaints are about us being out of stock on the items they need.”
You reply, “So if we want to get down to 3 complaints, we have to solve this problem of “stock-outs” and some of the other problems. That may take a lot longer. Can you be satisfied with cutting the complaints to 5 or less a week?”
The boss says, “Yes, I’ll take that. Just deal with the stock-out problem.”
You say, “Okay, I’ll be back with a short, one page project plan for you to sign off. Then we’ll start work.”
Asking a few questions to define the scope and having a conversation to learn what the boss/sponsor wants is always worth the effort. Think about what would have happened if you had done a fast job straightening up the supply room but the number of complaints didn’t change?  The boss might’ve been very unhappy with you. That’s why you should always do a project plan that specifies the scope.

What Is the Rest of the Small Project Plan?

The rest of your small project plan is specifying the high-level deliverables. On this project, they might include setting a reorder point for every item and keeping track of the withdrawals from the supply room.

Then you do a rough estimate of the amount of work that you and your assistant have to do. That might be 20 hours.

Next you identify the constraints on the project. They might be a budget of $5,000 and a duration (completion date) of 2 weeks from the start date. You and your assistant combined can work on the project 10 hours a week.

Then you identify the risks the project faces. They might include lack of cooperation from people in signing out what they take out of the supply room.

Finally, you ask the boss and possibly some of the affected department heads to sign off on your small project plan. Then you start work.

Learn how to create a small project plan in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Fast Track Project Planning

Fast Track Project Planning is a technique project managers can use when the sponsor pressures them to start work quickly.  Sponsors often voice these complaints about planning:

  • “I don’t want you to waste a lot of time on meetings and paperwork. Let’s start work!
  • “We can plan this project as we go.  So start work now!”
  • “We need to be flexible and able to change the plan at a moment’s notice. So start working on it!”

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

Project Planning Main Page

Obviously, you need a way to respond to these demands because many hyperactive sponsors won’t listen to arguments about the value of thorough planning.  There are two possible responses.

Fast Track Project Planning Situation #1: “Fast-food Drive-Thru”

First, you can adopt a “Fast-food Drive-thru” project planning approach. Here’s how it goes: the PM is working at the drive-thru window of a burger joint. The sponsor pulls up to the window and says, “I’m hungry.” Instantly, the PM and team slap burgers, chicken and fish on the grill and toss fries and chicken nuggets into the frying vat. They certainly do start work fast! However, we will waste a lot of that food because it isn’t what the sponsor wants. The same is true on a project we start this way. There is a lot of wasted time and resources. It will also take longer to deliver the project’s scope because the PM doesn’t find out what that is until the work almost done.  PMs use this fast food approach all the time because it allows them to satisfy the sponsor’s demand to start work quickly. That creates a happy sponsor…in the beginning.

The main benefit of the Fast-food Drive-thru project planning is that the project manager and team can start work quickly. They sometimes can begin within just hours of the executive having the idea for the project. The project manager may think this technique makes them responsive to the needs of senior management. Nevertheless, the time to judge the level of sponsor satisfaction is at the end of the project, not the beginning.

Some executives also feel that project planning is a waste of time and that starting work quickly is admirable. In truth, projects started this way waste money and usually finish late. They also produce deliverables of questionable quality. Executives who favor this “start fast” approach also usually have abysmal records of accomplishment in terms of the success of the projects they sponsor.

Fast Track Project Planning Situation #2: (Design/Build)

This Fast Track Project Planning approach is a better way to deal with impatient sponsor demands or to handle projects that you must launch in the midst of a crisis. You develop a partial project plan and then begin work on the first of the major deliverables. You plan the remaining major deliverables as you work on the first. The key to this technique is having hard-edged definitions of the acceptance criteria for the all of the major deliverables. Working from the top down, you tightly define the project scope and 4 – 7 major deliverables. You have to know with great precision the path that you’re going to take from where you are now to the end result the sponsor wants.  Having crystal-clear, quantified acceptance criteria is the key to avoiding work that you must scrap. This technique lets you compress the time for the project planning process and start work more quickly because you aren’t waiting to complete the detailed planning on the major deliverables that you’ll will work on later.  This approach is very different from not doing planning at all. The sponsor has to commit significant time to doing the high level planning.

This technique is widely used in the construction industry and it substantially reduces the duration of projects. It also carries some risks for the project manager and sponsor. As you detail the plan for the first of the major deliverables, you are depending on the accuracy of the deliverable descriptions for the remaining major deliverables and the project as a whole. If those change or are inaccurate, we will waste a lot of the work on the first major deliverable.

The sponsor and stakeholders need to understand the risk inherent in this FastTrack planning. You will start work on the first major deliverable earlier than with a classic planning approach. However, the risk of major cost and duration overruns is very real if the definitions of the later major deliverables are not reliable. Executives are always interested in starting work fast but they need to sign off on the risks inherent in this FastTrack approach. They also need to understand that it is their job to define those major deliverables.

Fast Track Project Planning: Details 

When you start describing this approach to the project sponsor and stakeholders, you need to make a couple of points clear. The project duration reduction is not free. It comes at the cost of less precise data in the beginning and a higher risk of cost and duration overruns. Because you aren’t developing a detailed plan for the entire project, your duration and budget data will be less precise when you start work. You shouldn’t use this Fast Track approach if you need great precision on either of those metrics.

The Fast Track Project Planning approach also requires an accurate definition of the deliverables. Stakeholders who are accustomed to a shoddy project planning process and many change orders will be surprised at the commitments they must make about what they want. It is much more expensive to change in midstream with the FastTrack approach than with a traditional project planning approach where you have completed plan for the whole project before you start work.

The way to reduce the risk inherent in the Fast Track Project Planning approach is to complete the detailed planning on the remaining deliverables immediately after you start work on the first major deliverable. Stakeholders often want to walk away from the project planning effort after they plan that first major deliverable and work has started. You need to be very clear that this is not the time to delay the planning or delegate it to subordinates. The further work progresses on the first major deliverable the more expensive changes become. That’s because you have more work you may have to scrap if there are major changes in the remainder of the project.

In summary, Fast Track Project Planning approach is a valuable technique for project managers to master because it often meets the needs of the organization and executives for rapid project planning.