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Iryna Viter

7 Strategic Steps to Better Project Planning

Before anything else, planning is key. Explore seven strategic steps to enhance your project planning skills.

Preparation makes perfect, and when it comes to project planning steps this rule applies like no other.

Any project manager knows how unpredictable projects can get if you come badly prepared. Let loose of a single cog in the machine and the whole structure might go down.

With a good project plan, you reinforce clarity, alignment, and efficiency, while also mitigating risks, increasing accountability, strengthening communication, and improving stakeholder engagement.

This article will get you closer to mastering the craft of project planning and offer some techniques that prove to stand the test of time.

steps of project planning

What are the seven steps of project planning?

There are seven core steps in project planning which you will run into with almost every guide. Below we will walk you through each step and explain why they all matter so much and why you can't afford to skip any of them.

  1. Establish project goals and success metrics
  2. Define project scope
  3. Map out your work breakdown structure (WBS)
  4. Create a resource plan
  5. Calculate the budget
  6. Plan for risks, scope creep, and quality control procedures
  7. Develop clear communication guidelines

Step 1. Establish project goals and success metrics

Defining your project goals is where it all starts, it is the backbone of company growth, plans, and strategies. When your project teams understand the goals of the projects they are working on it's easier for everyone to see how those projects fit within the larger picture of company development.

Even more, they see how their contribution, big or small, can make a difference in the high-level journey of the business. This is the point that will help people drive inner motivation and productivity to excel within their roles and demonstrate their best work. In recent research, PwC found that only 39% of people can clearly see the value they're bringing, while only 34% believe they strongly contribute to the company's success.

On a more practical level, establishing project goals and objectives will help you set priorities right, plan resources and further company budgets. With project goals, you need to aim to answer high-level questions like "how is this initiative going to benefit the company?"; some experts like using the well-known SMART framework for this.

However, when it comes to project objectives, you need to get a bit more granular and make it clear what specific deliverables you expect to see at the end of the project. This, in turn, will help you define what success will look like and what metrics you can apply to see how well (or unwell) the project is going from the day it starts.

Step 2. Define project scope

Understanding the project scope is crucial for having a realistic picture of just how feasible that project is.

The project scope will give you a general idea of the work that needs to be put in so you can see right off the bat whether you have enough resources to complete it. And if you don't, just how much you're missing to get it done if there is a big discrepancy.

When you're in the professional services business, it's not uncommon for clients to request extra work when the project is already mid-way. Unless your project scope is documented from the get-go, it might be difficult to pinpoint the extra billable hours your project team will be putting in later on. Besides, you need to draw those lines in black and white so that if the project runs over time or over budget there is a clear explanation of why things got derailed or didn't stick to the initial plan. The project scope will also help you fend off unrealistic expectations and unreasonable demands from any stakeholder involved.

In order to nail your project scope, which is one of the basic steps for project planning, you need to define the total amount of work that needs to be done on the project, which you will later break down into smaller meaningful blocks. Just how detailed this document outlining the total scope of work will be is up to you, but it needs to be detailed enough so you can get everyone on the same page and get feedback early on.

Step 3. Map out your work breakdown structure (WBS)

A work breakdown structure, otherwise known as WBS, is a structured breakdown of a project, presented visually in a hierarchy, with a focus on specific deliverables. It is an integral part of any project management process and one of the project planning process steps that sometimes get overlooked.

With your project scope outlined, go into the tasks, subtasks, dependencies, and deliverables that will impact the successful delivery of the project. The goal of this step is to bring more visibility into the actual project execution and start identifying early on where things could go wrong.

There are lots of ways you can visualize your WBS. The smaller companies with less complex projects usually go for Kanban boards, which you can use in all the best project planning tools. If you're dealing with a big team or a complex project net, using Gantt charts or their alternatives might be a more reasonable option.

It is in this step that you can calculate your timelines and milestones, on top of the deliverables. Be sure to pay careful attention to any dependencies. Is it possible that one task delay can bring down the one coming after it (which it usually does)? In that case, that's the dependency you need to keep an eye on as it can cause delays in the overall project delivery.

A well-developed WBS will also prepare you for the next steps involved in planning a project, where you will need to get closer to the things it will take to make it into a successful project. It is yet another important piece of the puzzle.

Step 4. Create a resource plan

project planning software for resource management

A resource plan is one of the most complex steps in the project planning process as you need to know exactly what resources you have, what their availability and capacity are like, whether they are skilled and experienced enough to join the new project, and whether you have any skills gaps to fill before moving on.

If you're missing some resources that doesn't mean that you can't continue with your steps of planning a project. With a good resource management tool you can create placeholders to make hiring easy and be laser-focused on the new skills and expertise you decide to bring to the team.

Here's a brief overview of the way you build a resource plan:

  • Get a holistic resource pool view so you know what you're working with.
  • Analyze capacity and availability to avoid overbooking your resources or cut potential downtime. Be sure to account for some time people might want to take off to recharge or just due to unpredictable circumstances.
  • Assign people to tasks based on their skills, expertise, seniority, availability, and capacity. See if you need to reassign someone from another project if the one you have at hand has a higher priority and urgency.
  • Identify your resource gaps and make informed decisions about hiring
  • Run what-if scenarios. The more advanced resource management tools will give you the option to run what-if analyses in case you want to predict how your resource situation is going to change in case, say, a new project comes in or an older project gets delayed.

Step 5. Calculate the budget

This step helps you manage the expectations of project stakeholders. The goal of this step is to see what kind of a project outcome your project plan can promise with the money you have to execute it. In some cases, it will also help you show your clients whether their envisioned outcomes are actually attainable within the budget they have for the project. And if they're not, you can offer an alternative within the money allocated for the project.

The risk you run when skipping this and moving to the next steps involved in planning a project is very straightforward: You might end up having no money left when the project is only halfway through.

While you don't have to plan every cent out, giving a ballpark estimation of the upcoming project costs is the first thing your clients will expect to get.

Imagine you're renovating a house and are hiring a team of people to do the work. Before giving them the green light, you'll want to know their rates, delivery speed, expertise levels, and what the whole thing will cost you, at least in general terms. Project cost calculation means to answer the same questions.

A good idea to consider when calculating the budget is looking at your historical data to see how much time and money a similar project took. Then you can get as close as possible to an accurate estimation based on the experiences of your specific team.

Step 6. Plan for risks, scope creep, and quality control procedures

This is not always one of the basic steps in project planning, but it is a good one to consider. A reliable project management plan doesn't just need to follow the potential project lifecycle, it needs to also consider the things that can make it go wrong. Planning for risks, scope creep, and quality control procedures will help you answer a number of questions and safeguard the project from failure.

According to recent data from the Project Management Institute, 52% of projects experience scope creep. Hoping that it won't happen in your case is, therefore, a matter of being unprepared for an extremely plausible scenario.

Here's what you need to look into if you want to create a safe project plan:

  • What needs to happen for the project to get derailed?
  • What needs to happen for the project to stop dead in its tracks?
  • What risks do we need to consider and what preventative measures can we take to mitigate those risks?
  • How do we know if the project is going according to plan?
  • How do we ensure quality along the project progress?
  • What are the protocols that will help us do quality control as the project unravels?

Step 7. Develop clear communication guidelines

Ensuring effective communication is oftentimes one of the last steps of project planning in project management. According to the Association for Project Management, poor communication can often be the cause of project failure, not just its symptom. And same as any other step in your project plans, this one too requires a strategic approach.

In it, you need to agree on a few things together with your team:

  • What channels are you going to use for your check-ins? Is it going to be Slack or email? Go for the one that promises faster returns and is more fitted to your culture and the structure of your team.
  • How often are you going to check in? Is there a need for daily stand-ups or is coming together once a week enough for everyone to get aligned? Bear in mind that the check-ins need to make it easier for everyone to go about their day, not steal their productivity time.
  • How are you going to communicate and what kind of information is everyone expected to deliver during the check-ins? It can be project progress, challenges, roadblocks, estimations, or all things together depending on your setup.
  • Who's responsible for the communication channels? Who will structure the information or lead the calls? Assigning that responsibility will make it easier for the communication to be structured and actionable.

Final thoughts

Project planning takes time. In fact, when done right, it can be a laborious task where you might need to outline a project timeline and a project schedule, only to find out later that they are not feasible and that you need to redo the whole thing.

Considering just how many puzzle pieces there are to any project plan, doing this manually is the last thing experienced project managers would agree. Especially with the risks human error can bring into complex projects with multiple resources working side by side.

To see how your project planning efforts can be made easy, automated, and calibrated, take Runn for a spin or book your free demo today!

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