Project Planning Techniques and Processes

Learn more about effective project planning processes and how they help you achieve successful project delivery.

At the beginning of every project you should define project objectives, identify opportunities and challenges and determine an actionable plan that will lead you to achieving the objectives you have clarified. We compiled information and resources that serve as a guide to the project planning process and different stages it entails. Find out more about the different project planning techniques you can apply and which approach best fits your needs.

Why Project Planning is not Project Management

Even though project planning and project management are two distinct things, the terms often get misused and treated like synonyms in the business environment. The Project Management Institute in their forth edition of "The Project Management Body of Knowledge" distinguishes five process groups that make up the entire project life cycle:

  • Initiating Processes
  • Planning Processes
  • Executing Processes
  • Monitoring & Controlling Processes
  • Closing Processes
Famous Project Planning Quotes: Always Have a Plan; Nothing Happens by Accident. - Cuck Knox

This clarifies that project planning and project management are both a part of the overall project life cycle and both required for successful project delivery. However, they entail very different project related activities. During the planning phase the project manager identifies who does what, how and when. This is also the time when project managers collect and clarify project requirements, help to define the overall project scope, create a work breakdown structure and develop a project schedule. Other planning activities include cost estimations as well as defining budgets. Once the project is underway, project management actually utilizes the elements previously defined in the project planning phase to execute, monitor, control and finally close the project. This implies that no project management effort can be effective if it is not based on a solid project plan. 

The most exciting, and at the same time the most difficult part of project planning, is that it is never really completed until all project goals are delivered. Most likely you will have to go back to your initial project plan and possibly revise it if you want to keep things on track. This includes that you should clarify objectives and requirements at various points throughout the project execution. It is essential to keep in mind that every instant of project planning is a time for realistic optimism — you will want to excite your team and everyone involved about the opportunities while having a fierce eye on what objectives are achievable.

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What Your Project Plan Should Cover

First, let's define what the project plan, or project management plan as named by the Project Management Institute (PMI), really is. It is not a Gantt chart. Even though the Gantt chart is what many people, among them many project managers, mostly associate with the project plan, it is only a part of the entire project plan and is better called the project schedule. The project schedule shows when the project manager has planned for a project activity to happen. Additonally, the project plan should describe how you will make them happen, in which order, with what results, which challenges might be faced, etc. 

A good project plan should feature the following elements:

  • Aim of Project — This is a mixture of reasons for the project at hands and the benefits that are expected to result from it. 
  • Output — Based on the aim of your project, this is a detailed description of what will actually be produced. For example, if your aim is to update a company's IT infrastructure your final output would be an update computer software on every device, including new computers and hardware as needed.
  • Quality Criteria — You need to determine what quality the output needs to have and which criteria determine the quality. In the above example, you will want to make sure that the updated network can actually cope with the expected traffic. Only if the output is of the required quality can a completed project be considered fully successful.
  • Resources — Given the output and its required quality, there's a specific need for resources like personnel, time, funds, equipment, facilities, and information. 
  • Constraints — Determine all the constraining factors that apply to the project. For example, if you are preparing a trade show event, the opening day of the convension puts a constraint on the finish date for the project.
  • Management Structure — You need a detailed breakdown of the roles you and your team members will play to clarify decision making processes, competencies and responsibilities. 
  • Milestones — You will want to compile a list of all the work that needs to be done and define which tasks are related in a way that allows you to combine them in a sensible milestone at the end of them. Every milestone also functions as a check point and helps you track the project's overall progress. 
  • Schedule— This is the Gantt chart mentioned above. The schedule provides information on what is expected to happen when. It includes dependencies, milestones, and ideally resources. A change to the other elements of the project plan will necessarily affect the project schedule.
  • Risks — What could go wrong and what is your plan for managing risks and uncertainties? If anything unexpected happens, and it sure will, you will thank yourself most for spending a considerate amount of time thinking about ways to avoid or minimise things that negatively impact the project delivery.
  • Communication — The project's success to a great degree depends on a smooth information flow. It is important to create a communication plan that ensures that everyone has the information they need to complete their assignments - without causing an information overload.

The golden rule in project planning is to put the project plan into writing; this will help you clarify project details at any point of the actual execution and it reduces the chances of forgetting something. Depending on your project's scope, the project plan may very well consist of several hundred pages or it might fit into a few lines. Regardless of its volume, it is the most important project document, so you shouldn't skip the planning phase in favor to faster results. Keep in mind that the more detailed and accurate your project plan is, the better equipped are you for the realization of the project. Remember to consider past project experiences when working on future project plans - the project plan won't be of much help if it sets unrealistic requirments and goals.

Additionally to your project plan, another decisive factor for a project's success is the backing it receives from those involved. A good way to achieve the stakeholders buy-in to the project is to involve them in the conceptualization phase. This includes that they review and approve the written project plan. An email response mostly suffices for smaller project's, if you work on larger projects you will want a formal signoff by one or several members of your company's or clients executive management.

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Elements of Proper Project Planning

Planning is the least glamorous part of a project, granted. But as Benjamin Franklin said: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." If project planning isn't done thoroughly, it is very likely that you will run into difficulties — no matter what project you work on. These tools help you in preparing for a successful project.

Define the Project Scope

Every project needs to be based on a solid justification. This simply means you have to identify in a short statement why the project is being created and what business need the project addresses. This helps in giving the project an overall direction and makes it easier to determine the requirments, goals and non-goals.

In defining the scope of a project you determine the project specific goals, deliverables, tasks, costs and deadlines. It is important to put the project scope in writing and refer to it as a guide on project boundaries and constraints, team member responsibilities and it is the basis for the verifying completed work. So the more detailed you describe the characteristics of the product or service, the lower are the chances for scope creep later on. Both the client and the team working on the project should agree to the terms set in the scope statement because it is the benchmark against which a project's success will be measured. This is closely connected to the acceptance criteria: The project scope should determine the conditions under which the project deliverables have to be accepted by the client.

Additionally, the project scope should also identify the non-goals of the project — things that are excluded from the project. By identifying items that are not part of the scope, you can effectively prevent scope creep. Everything that has been clearly excluded from the project scope cannot be included later unless the project goes through a change management process. Even though writing a scope statement can be rather time-consuming, it is worth every project manager's time because the rewards usually include a significantly increased likelihood of successful project delivery within time and budget.

Finally, the project scope statement should include cost estimates. The cost estimates are a crucial part of project planning and should be as accurate as possible because they are the basis for the any budget allocation at a later point in the project planning process. If you are too optimistic in your cost estimates budget limits will be overrun. If your estimates are too high, superfluous resources - whether it is money or work force - that are allocated to the project will lack in other projects. Both scenarios will negatively impact a project's success. Especially when it comes to cost estimates experiences from past projects are very helpful.

Create SMART Goals

After putting up a project plan, create SMART goals and objectives. Setting goals the SMART way helpy ensure that everyone involved not only understands them, but they are relevant to the project's overall success, trackable, and enough resources are available to achieve them within the given deadline. Without day to day goals, you and your team might end up drifting. Whether you develop immediate, intermediate or long-term goals, make sure they apply to the following criteria:

S - Specific, Significant

M - Measurable, Meaningful

A - Achievable, Agreed Upon

R - Relevant, Realistic, Results-Oriented

T - Trackable, Timely, Tangible

Develop a Project Schedule

The project schedule is the most visible part of the project planning and the one you will use most to track a project's progress. It visualizes all the activities that are needed to complete the project on a time basis. There are various techniques for displaying and analyzing the project schedule which focus on different aspects of the project schedule. Common techniques for visualizing the project schedule are:

Milestone Charts - They are portrayed on a timeline and, as implied by the name, display only the project's milestones. They are intended mainly for the exective management who is less concerned with the thousands of small tasks that are required to achieve a milestone. A milestone usually also signifies a major, interim reporting point to senior management levels. If working on large scale, very complex projects it can be helpful to devide the project into smaller sub-projects that end in one of the milestones.

Task Lists - The task list is the most basic, yet powerful scheduling tool and prooves to be particularly useful when working in extended teams. Every team member has a good overview of all the action items assigned to them and helps the individual focus on their specific responsibilities. If connected with a communication tool, the task list is a simple and convenient tool for fast team communication and feedback both within the team and to the project manager. 

Gantt Charts - They are also called Bar Charts and are by far the most recognized and widely used project schedule format. It is an excellent tool for tracking the progress, task dependencies and resource utilization both for small and large scale projects. In fact, it is so commonly in use that many people, among them many project managers, mistake the Gantt chart for the entire project plan. This tool is very easy to use and maintain. It also allows to easily determine the project's critical path.

After deciding which technique best fits your project's needs you can start developing your project's actual schedule. Your project schedule should display task dependencies, include information on resource allocation (personnel, equipment, etc.) and deadlines. The ultimate goal is to develop a project schedule that allows you to achieve the project goals with the least amount of risk possible.

  1. Specify all the activities that are required to complete the project
  2. Identify every activity's immediate predecessor activity
  3. Allocate resources (personnel and other) that are required to complete the activity
  4. Estimate the duration for every activity
  5. Define major interim (milestones) and final deadlines that must be met
  6. Identify factors outside of your project that potentially influence your project activities and deadlines
  7. Visualize the project schedule (Gantt chart, task list, milestone chart, etc)
  8. Analyze the project schedule and identify critical paths and slack times

This information helps you decide which acitivities to closely monitor and how often. You want to make sure that you stay on track especially with activities along the critical path to not endanger the timely completion of the project. The slack times also suggest strategies you can apply in order to mitigate negative effects if facing unexpected delays.

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The Project Planning Process

As implied above, the project planning process really is a project planning cycle. It brings together all the different aspects of project planning and weaves it into a coherent, unified process. A project being a dynamic undertaking may require you to go back to your initial project plan to re-evaluate and possible revise as often as needed to keep everything project related on track. If you consider project planning an ongoing, dynamic process, you ensure that you learn from mistakes at an early stage in the project and achieve successful project delivery despite the many challenges you will face while the project is underway. Lessons learned can be feeded back into future planning and decision making. 

The project planning process genarally includes five stages:

#1 - Visualize, Sell, Initiate the Project

One of the most important factors for a project's success is the backing from all stakeholders. A very effective way to get them committed to the project idea is to link it to what is important to the people involved. You can demonstrate that you value their input and involvement by conducting interviews with every stakeholder to find out what their needs and expectations for the project outcome are. Prioritize the list of needs according to their relevance and use it as the basis for your project's set of goals. Make sure that what you define as a project goal can be measured. A good measuring technique is the SMART princple. After you determined your set of goals, present your concept to the stakeholders and show them at what point they had a part in shaping the entire project.

#2 - Plan the Project

Project planning is THE most important part of the project planning process. It is crucial for a project's success to pay detailed attention to this step in the project planning process because failure to do so may result in negative consequences throughout the project execution. A good project plan should address all the previously defined project requirements like project scope, budget and timelines. Once you defined the project's timeline and scope, you should develop the project schedule. Based on your schedule and budget, allocate the resources available for the project execution. 

#3 - Execute the Deliverables

After the bulk of paperwork required for the project is done you can move on to the actual execution of the project. In order to achieve all the project's objectives, each project team member will have to complete their assignments within the deadline for each activity. The detailed project schedule will help you track whether the project progresses as needed. Hold weekly status meetings on the project progress in order to keep everyone involved up-to-date. Additionally, it is essential to track the efforts and costs of the project to determine whether the project is moving in the right direction. If you find that the project is swerving off the plan, the project manager must apply measures that helpy mitigate any negative effect and get the project back on track. 

#4 - Control and Validate

Control and validation is a supportive activity that should run from the onset of the project until the day of project closure. Controlling will mainly involve comparing the status quo to initial project protocols such as the project plan and communication plans. In order to ensure a high quality of project deliverables and requirements, it is helpful to install a special quality assurance unit in your project team who assist the project manager and team with the validation and verfication processes.

#5 - Close-out and Evaluate 

Once all the scheduled tasks are competed and the final requirement is achieved, it is time for delivery to the client and close-out of the project. At the end of every project you should take the time to evaluate whether the planned objectives, schedule and budget have been met, and how effective your team's perfomance was at any stage of the project. Use the lessons learned to optimize following projects.

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