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Iryna Viter

Getting Started With Project Planning: Advice From 20+ Leaders Globally

It takes a village to create a project plan. So we've asked more than 20 project management experts to share their best advice, reveal common mistakes, and explain why project planning is important.

To get the project off the ground, project managers create project plans. A project plan is your best bet for success if you want to deliver something of great value on time and on budget. For years, the Project Management Institute (PMI) has been referring to project planning as a "primary management function." There's also evidence proving that organizations that practice project planning can boast of the best use of resources, which, in turn contributes to profitability. On the contrary, companies that DON'T have a project plan spend 28 times more money (!) than those that do, because resources are often wasted, the Project Management Institute found.

However, when the sales team hands you a project, you may not even know where to start. There are so many things at play in the realm of project planning that it is probably difficult to determine where to begin. In this guide, we break down the project planning phase to common documents, critical components, and easy steps, so you can get started your project planning process on the right foot.

We've also asked project management leaders who live and breathe project planning to share why it's important, dwell on some common mistakes or even biggest regrets, and explain how to approach project management planning. Jump to different sections to learn all the nuts and bolts.

What is project planning?

In project management, project planning is the process of documenting the steps necessary to complete the project successfully. Kiron Bondale, who has been dealing with projects for decades now, states that the main role of project planning is to "reduce the uncertainty present in project work to a manageable level such that delivery commitments can be made with some level of confidence."

In other words, the goal of project planning is to measure the time, money, and resources needed to complete a project (as well as any other critical project details) and then make an informed decision about whether it's worth the time and money it will take.

To that end, every project manager needs to know how to create a project plan before jumping to the execution phase. A project plan, also known as a project management plan, is a blueprint that sets forth milestones, expected results, estimated costs, time frames, and other data related to a project.

In principle, the project plan has to include a list of phases, tasks, and subtasks necessary to complete the project as well as descriptions of who will perform them, how long they will take, and what resources are required. To make it even simpler, your project plan is the what, the how, the who, and the when of your project.

However, don't confuse it with project scheduling. Andrea Clinton, a PMO Manager at Apple believes this is the most common mistake project managers make when it comes to project planning.

The most common mistake is confusing project planning with project scheduling. “I have a list of tasks therefore I have planned”. Your plan should factor in all aspects of your project including scope definition and management, stakeholder identification, risk management, communication plan, etc. While your schedule is the series of tasks, activities, and milestones that lead to achievement of the plan and delivery of scope.

In practice, to cover a lot of the information that makes a project plan, the following project documents are the key to roll out your project management plan:

  • Project Charter. A brief overview of the project is provided in the project charter. It includes information about the project's goals, objectives, constraints, and stakeholders, among other things.
  • Statement of Work (SOW). The statement of work is a legally binding agreement that defines all aspects of the project in as much detail as possible. It includes scope of work, place & time of execution, project schedule, deliverables, expected outcomes, etc.
  • Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The term speaks for itself: The WBS aims to define project scope breaking it down into the project phases, deliverables, and work packages that lead to your final outcome.
work breakdown structure

Emanuel Lopez, a Senior Consulting Project Manager at CORE, told us he wished he knew at the beginning of his career that "the WBS should be clear for everyone because it is one of the bases of a good schedule." Make sure everyone understands what it's all about! "What is NOT part of the project scope should be crystal clear as well," points out Sandeep B., a Scrum Master at Virinchi.

A project schedule, project budget, contingency and communication plans are also created during the project planning phase. The success of any project depends largely upon its successful implementation, which requires a project plan that details every aspect of the project from conception through completion.

A project plan is most commonly represented in the form of a Gantt chart to make it easy to communicate to stakeholders. For a more high-level view, try creating a project timeline with Runn that includes milestones, phases, and resource bookings.

There are many different approaches to project planning, and the right strategy depends on your particular situation. One thing, however, stays the same. Among other phases, project planning plays a critical role in the project life cycle.

Why project planning is important

It goes without saying that the project planning phase is an important step in project management. Without proper planning, the chances of failure rise, and the project may not meet its required goals.

Project planning is key to the successful completion of any project. The first step to creating an effective project plan is to understand why it is so important. After that, you can apply the appropriate methods for developing a project plan. This will make your projects more efficient and give your company a competitive edge in today's market.

That being said, project planning is important for many reasons. First, it ensures that all steps in the project are completed in the order that is most efficient for the overall success of the project. Second, it allows each person involved in the process to be accountable for their individual responsibilities.

Muktar Arubayi, a Senior Project Manager at ERS Limited, is a true advocate of project planning. Here's his take:

Planning generally allows you to think through the entire process and make mistakes on paper rather than in the actual work. It exposes the flaws in your process and sometimes, your plan may even show that the entire project is not feasible, so no need to even start if stakeholders cannot agree on the expected outcomes of the project.

The benefits of effective project planning also include increased productivity, reduced risk, and better communication between stakeholders throughout the project management life cycle.

Steven Goeman, a Project Management Author and Mentor at GAPS suggested the following analogy:

If a sick child has to go to the hospital, how does it feel (besides being sick, of course)? Mostly scared, because of the uncertainty of what is to come. But in terms of pain and with some former experiences, doctors do not look something promising... So, the child will start to resist and fight the treatment from the first moment, even if it is only pulling up a sleeve (which does not hurt!) to take the blood pressure. A good nurse, however, would start with explaining the process upfront, step by step. The child will remain calm and will not fight.
Project stakeholders, just like children, can't always boast of having positive experiences with projects and are scared of the uncertainty a project will bring. So if you want a lot of fighting and resisting stakeholders, then do not make a project plan. If you want collaborative stakeholders, DO MAKE a project plan.

The project planning phase is also about setting goals and objectives that enable you to achieve the results you want.

Yvonne Scott, a Program Manager at JPMorgan Chase & Co. believes project planning sets the foundation for the entire project. "If you don’t establish the objectives and goals, you will spin and never reach conclusion," says Yvonne.

In turn, Nichole Beaulieu, a Senior Project Manager at Voya Financial stressed on what will happen if you don't invest proper time and effort in planning.

Without conducting the right planning sessions, your projects will have a lot of risk to meeting its end goal objectives, will likely take longer and cost the organization more money. Planning helps stakeholders, sponsors and team members understand the true scope of the effort. This will assist mitigating risk along the way, identify the right resources required to meet objectives and allows the project team and PM to have a better estimate up front for cost and schedule.

Additionally, project management planning can help give you a sense of direction and motivate you to accomplish tasks without getting burned out along the way. It is also a good way to make sure that you are moving forward in the right direction and that things are staying on track. Byron Jung, a Senior Engagement Manager at Infostrux compares every new project to driving to a place you've never been to. "It's sensible to figure out the route ahead of time (whether with a map or GPS) to improve the odds of arriving at the destination on time and without running out of gas," Byron points out.

Among other things, it can also provide other benefits, such as helping to improve efficiency and reduce unnecessary waste, while keeping everyone on the same page with clear priorities.

Ravi Kolli, a Senior. Manager, at Endo Pharmaceuticals emphasizes on the importance of having a project plan (and what is out of scope) to get "a buy-in for the implementation from the sponsors as well as customers." Ravi also points out that it is crucial to define the critical path, risks and risk mitigations, proper contingency plans, clear buy-in for out of scope plan, and change management within the project.

All in all, being able to plan your projects effectively can help improve your chances of success and make it easier for your project team — or your entire organization — to reach its goals. It can also make it easier for you to avoid problems and deal with unexpected issues as they occur. So if you are looking for some tips on how you can effectively plan projects so that they're easier to manage and lead, here's what you need to know.

Common project planning mistakes

When we asked project managers about their biggest mistakes and regrets they wish they knew before starting their first projects, they responded unanimously that the most common ones were:

  1. Not involving stakeholders in creating a project plan
  2. Assuming your project plan will never change
  3. Confusing what's done with success
  4. Planning the project alone
  5. Thinking that as a project manager you know it all
  6. Being overly optimistic about the project plan
  7. Not having the right resources engaged in planning

Let's take a look at each and hear those experts out.

1. Not involving stakeholders in creating a project plan

Yvonne Scott, a Program Manager at JPMorgan Chase & Co. emphasizes the importance of involving stakeholders as much as possible in the project planning process to do some groundwork.

My biggest regret on early projects is not having the executive sponsorship engaged and socialized. It was there, but not strong enough or “present” to prevent stakeholders from being uncommitted or disengaged. It required a lot of re-work. That's why the common mistakes are not getting stakeholder/sponsor support up front, not understanding your budget or building the business case, not establishing a well thought out working agreement to give the project team framework, not understanding current state vs future state, not having a blackout plan in the event of failure.

Muktar Arubayi, a Senior Project Manager at ERS Limited, thinks that "the biggest planning mistake is not involving stakeholders in your plan."

The real people that will do the actual work should be the ones estimating the work. It gives them a mental buy-in and solicits the required concession for the project. Back in the days, I also  did not know things like gold plating which requires you to limit your work to the agreed scope and not do things beyond the scope in trying to impress stakeholders. This act of gold plating will mostly have consequences later in the project. Also, clarifying objectives adequate among multiple stakeholders is essential to avoid unnecessary changes to the projects.

In turn, here's what Shannon Moss, a Scheduling and Estimation Manager at 174 Power Global, told us:

I wish more people would consider planning as a collaborative venture. No one stakeholder has all of the knowledge around the entire project. Engaging others actively and collaboratively enables the creation of well rounded and stronger project plans.

2. Assuming your project plan will be set in stone

Bob Gawler, PMP, a Program and Project Management Consultant at The Spartan Way, Inc., speaks to many mistakes, one of them being assuming that your project plan will never change:

As the adage says: "No plan survives first contact with the enemy." This holds true in military as well as "business" circles. Without proper analysis and planning it is unlikely, personally I'd say never, you will be able to recover when inevitably the project goes off the rails. If anyone is aware of a project that was planned and executed without deviation please point me to that case study.

There is a tendency to try to take on too much work in enterprise projects. We are simply unable to look out more than 9-12 months and predict what turmoil the market and world may throw our way. Proper planning allows us to lay out a long-term desired path and then break that down into manageable project of a =/<12 month duration. This is one instance where I think the Agile (SW development methodology) principle of a minimal viable product and project management have a useful intersection and overlap.

Planning an incremented approach allows us to adjust direction as we uncover those unknown knowns and are confronted with the unknown unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld). It gives us a path for analysis on how to adjust the project including the option of termination (which is not done nearly enough).

Without planning its a free for all.

Byron Jung, a Senior Engagement Manager at Infostrux Solutions mentioned a similar mistake.

A common mistake is thinking that things won't change and thus failing to plan for how the project will adapt to what the team observes/learns along the way. I wish that when I first started, I better understood the difference between a risk and an issue. Also that some risks deserve more attention than others.

Taiwo Abraham, a Program Manager at Horizant shared some of the challenges he came across in the past:

Most common planning mistake is thinking one can plan enough to not have to change the plan during execution. I also wish I knew there’s no plan unless I have motivated resources and key stakeholders' buy-in.

3. Confusing done with success

Sherie Kerska, a PMO Manager at Government Brands, LLC pointed us to yet another interesting issue that touches upon the planning phase of the project and provided some recommendations on how to overcome it.

One planning mistake is confusing "done" with "success" at the end of a project. Completion of a successful project not only checks the boxes that all the tasks were completed, but it also achieves the outcomes of the many stakeholders involved. Spend time in planning understanding what success looks for your stakeholders, document it, translate success into KPI's, and measure throughout project execution, monitoring and controlling and project closure.

A successful project includes understanding the change involved for the people impacted by the project. Understand where they are starting, where they need to be when the project is delivered, and include a Change Management component to your project plan to help them be successful with the change.

4. Planning the project alone

Let's not forget that project management is 90% about communication. Amy Palen O'Hearn, a Project Manager at Concord Hospital warned us that project should never be planned in silos. Pulling the communication strings is a must.

Most common project planning mistake? Thinking the PM can do this all in a vacuum. Planning requires broad collaboration from ALL stakeholders; each stakeholder holds at least one piece of information crucial to the project. Second - thinking planning is done; it is not something that is finished and put on a shelf - planning is revisited over and over regardless of how "solid" the plan is believed to be. Both of these things I wish I had know on my first project many years ago!

Caleb Guy, a Cyber Range Curriculum Manager at TD SYNNEX cautions every project manager against planning the project unaccompanied as well:

When I started my first project, I remember spending hours in our collaboration room alone mapping out every possible action item, risk, cost, and benefit before talking to my first stakeholder. As you may imagine, my first stakeholder had a lot of feedback about my "plan"!

Project planning is not a solo venture and trying to plan for every contingency before a project is a fool's errand. Instead, collaborate with your team on a plan, and if things don't go according to plan, then change the plan accordingly.

5. Thinking that as the project manager you know it all

Shellie VanUden, a Program Manager at Omnicell advised against being an omniscient know-it-all.

Thinking that as the project manager you know it all. This leads to not pulling in the appropriate resources from across the spectrum to discuss how the project will impact their area, what risks the project brings, and what they need to be successful. Proper representation is a must!

6. Being overly optimistic about your project plan

Most projects start out too optimistic, with high expectations and a compressed project timeline.

Ademir Gonçalves, a Project Manager at G4F refers to it as 'wishful' thinking:

We tend to be too optimistic about the effort and time needed to accomplish a task. We forget about risks. We should look at the whole picture and try to understand all the interactions between stakeholders and activities. That being said, planning should be a collaborative effort. And most important: You cannot plan what others will do without them being part of the planning process.

7. Not having the right resources engaged in project planning

Once again, it takes a village to plan a project. The right resources will help a project manager to estimate how long the project will take and take off that blindfold. Nichole Beaulieu, a Senior Project Manager at Voya Financial explained that the common mistake is "not having the right resources/SME's engaged for productive planning discussions and the ability to do the deep dive into each scope item." Dinesh Ravichandran, a Project Manager at Infognana (IG) Solutions also added "not using the right tool for planning and tracking, not considering the resource availability, and not estimating optimistic efforts" to the list of mistakes.

So what makes a good project plan?

Now that we know common mistakes, we can cut to the chase. In practice, a solid project plan (well, as solid as it can be) must include the following:

1. Project scope: A general description of the project scope that outlines project objectives, project deliverables, and expected project benefits.

2. Strategy: This section covers how you'll accomplish the project's goals, listing out all the resources you'll need to make the strategy come to life.

3. Project schedule: This section lays out time frames for each step in the process, with deadlines for each task (or milestone) to be completed. The project schedule should cover all major milestones and include time for unexpected delays or changes.

4. Project budget: This section outlines all costs associated with the project, including salaries and any other expenses involved in making it happen.

A good project plan will include all four parts above — but be aware that each will change as the project evolves.

Beth Hensel, a Senior Project Manager at Empower warns project managers not to take the forest for the trees.

It is important to recognize that planning is never once and done, it is not complete until the project is complete. Many oversimplify planning by assuming it is scheduling, but it is much bigger than that. Planning is synonymous with defining. The most vital part of a project is articulating up-front what the project is trying to accomplish (objectives, preferably prioritized), breaking down the objectives into a tangible scope, then identifying the major milestones to deliver that scope, and building a project plan to support.

Careful identification of risks, constraints, and predetermined boundaries are also critical to plan a project appropriately. Oftentimes, project boundaries (end dates and/or budget) are determined long before scope is defined, resources are secured, and the project is planned. This is okay, provided there is also an awareness that concessions may need to be made to conform. For example, if project planning determines that an additional x-number of months or x-dollars are needed to deliver full scope as defined, then perhaps scope needs to be reduced to support the required timeline or budget.

Thomas Walenta, a Global Project Economy Expert proves the point raised by Beth:

The process of planning involves thinking about potential future scenarios - not only one. The process is more important than the result (the plan) because 'no plan survives the first contact with the enemy' (General von Moltke, around 1880). Assuming planning only takes place at the beginning of a project is a mistake. It is a continuous task (with different peaks in efforts).

That being said, your project plan will be a living document that is flexible enough to change as new information comes in. You should be able to modify your plan as necessary so you can stay on track and still meet deadlines.

How to create a project plan from scratch in 7 steps

It takes time and effort to create a project plan. However, this effort can reduce delays, increase quality and efficiency, and provide greater transparency into the project.

To help break down the project planning process, here are seven project planning steps to get any project manager started.

Step 1: Identify all project stakeholders.

Who do you need to keep informed about your progress? What are their roles and responsibilities? This could be a project sponsor, internal personnel or external clients, vendors, or subcontractors. The more people that are affected by your project, the bigger your impact (both positive and negative) will be on their daily operations so it's critical that you include everyone in the project planning process! Stakeholders will have different levels of involvement in your project depending on their function so it's important that you identify who is responsible for each task. Meet with all the key stakeholders, and let them know their roles, timelines, and deliverables.

Step 2: Set goals and objectives.

Once you have identified all the stakeholders involved in the project, you must understand what goals and objectives the project sets out to achieve. These should be concrete, specific and time-bound.

When setting your goals, keep these criteria in mind:

Specific – Goals should be specific so that they are easily identifiable. A goal like “I want to lose weight” is very vague, whereas “I want to lose 20 pounds by the end of June” is more specific.

Measurable – Goals should be measurable so that you can track your progress and see what has been achieved. For example, “I want to increase my company revenues by 10 percent this year” is measurable because it specifies both the goal (increase revenue) and how much (10 percent).

Time-Bound – Goals should have a deadline or due date so that you can work towards them within a certain timeframe.

If you have multiple goals for your project, determine which are primary and which are secondary in terms of importance.

Step 3: Identify key deliverables.

Now that you've set your goals for the project, it's time to write down how you'll achieve them. What will be delivered at each stage of the project? Start by describing what needs to happen first, then work your way through each major task until you have covered everything from beginning to end. This step will help you with budgeting and resource allocation.

Projects are typically divided into stages. Each stage has a set of deliverables that must be completed before the next stage can begin.

To help make sense of everything that needs to get done, create a work breakdown structure (WBS) as part of establishing the scope of your project plan. A WBS helps break down each component of the project into milestones and tasks that can be managed more efficiently.

Milestones are used in project management to mark specific points along a aproject timeline. These points may signal anchors such as a project start and end date, contract dates, spending limits, or employee hiring or termination dates.

Step 4: List the resources required.

To obtain buy-in from all stakeholders before starting the project, you'll also need to determine what resources will be required. In other words, create a project team! For example, if you were renovating a home, make sure you have the construction workers and contractors available when they will be needed. Know what materials you need and when they should be delivered. This will help keep your project within budget and on schedule with minimal distractions.

Here's an interesting fact:

  • 39% of project teams are composed of 6-10 people; 30.5% have more than 10 people; another 30.5% are composed of 1-5 people (Girl’s Guide to Project Management, 2021).

Resource management comes with its challenges, so creating a resource calendar at this point might help you avoid resource risks or overbookings.

Step 5: Create a detailed scope statement.

A scope statement is a list of all the requirements that need to be fulfilled by the end of the project. It will help you make sure you're covering everything that needs to be done.

Write down a detailed action plan for each deliverable. This is essentially an outline of the tasks that need to be completed in order to complete the deliverable. A good way to do this is to create an activity list using Excel or another spreadsheet program with columns.

Some project managers choose to plan backwards. Ivana Artić, a Global PMO Leader at Vanderlande says that she "always starts planning backwards." "Is it our common goal to have a house standing on April 1st, 2023? Than what needs to be delivered, when and by whom? What are the work packages and to which workstream do they belong?"

Alan Uren, a Creator of OVERGantt Project Management System couldn't agree more:

Planning backward, pull planning, objective-driven logic, ‘EndFirst’ planning…. With the right tools and methods, this approach solves one of the greatest challenges in project planninng: the ‘errors and omissions’ due to faulty or missing dependencies between tasks and sub-projects.

Step 6: Estimate the workload, duration, and cost for each deliverable.

Estimation is a team sport, so at this point of project planning, it's important to hear out what your project team has to say. In the end, two heads are better than one! Putting your heads together, you'll be able to discuss all the details and create a more realistic plan. Use these estimates to create a Gantt chart or timeline for your project plan.

Step 7: Assess risks and make contingency plans.

What things could go wrong during the course of this project? If something does go wrong, how will it be fixed? This step may seem pessimistic, but it's better to acknowledge potential problems than to risk letting them derail your entire project.

Bonus step: Revise the plan periodically.

If you've read to this line, you probably know that the most important thing to remember about project planning is that it is never finished. As the project moves along and things change, it’s important to keep the plan up-to-date. You should be revising your plan throughout the life cycle of the project to reflect changes in team members, clients, and other factors.

How project planning software can help

It's true that there are many moving pieces to track and a lot of important details to keep in mind when you're going through the project planning phase of a big project. But if you follow the right steps and have the right project management software at your disposal, you can make the process much less complicated.

You've got to come to terms with one simple fact: Planning takes time. Sometimes lots of time. And there's no guarantee you'll get it right the first time. That's where project planning software comes in.

Project planning software is increasingly accessible, affordable, and user-friendly. In other words, there's no excuse for not using it. It can help you turn your project vision into reality. It’s easy to use. It lets you organize your tasks, assign resources and track costs. You can even create a Gantt chart that shows how the various phases in your project fit together and allows you to manage project schedules as they shift over time.

With different projects come different tasks, and it's important for your project teams to understand these tasks and how they are connected with each other. If you want to make sure that your team knows what they need to do and when, then project planning software is essential. The software helps provide visual clarity so that your team can stay on top of their assignments and deadlines.

Try Runn to turn your project plan into a dynamic project schedule - monitor project progress, manage resource bookings, and stay on top of project financials.

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