Business professional arranging colorful sticky notes on a glass wall during a project management and planning session.

How to Conduct Project Planning: An Overview Guide

By: Dr. Michael Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM

Have you ever initiated a project with tremendous enthusiasm, only to find the feeling fleeting amidst confusion, misunderstanding, and being overwhelmed?

While project planning is the backbone of successful project management, it can often feel like it overburdens a team if it is not executed effectively. It does so because of the myriad of project tasks, timelines, and responsibilities that sometimes backfire, leading to inefficiencies and disappointment.

Imagine an environment where your projects are planned effectively and efficiently to stay on track and energize and inspire your team. Consider what it would be like if every task were straightforward, all responsibilities were understood, and every milestone celebrated appropriately. By employing these project planning best practices, you have the tools and techniques to ensure your projects are structured yet flexible, detailed, and manageable.

Explore these project planning tools and steps and discover a process that ensures your project planning is comprehensive and, most importantly, team-friendly. Bolster your approach to project planning and watch your team’s efficiency and morale accelerate positively.

"Overhead view of a collaborative team writing and planning on notepads during a creative brainstorming session on a wooden floor."

Key Takeaways

1. Comprehensive Frameworks Matter: Adopting established best practices like PMBOK, Kerzner, or Meredith and Mantel ensures a structured approach to project planning, minimizing the chances of overlooking critical aspects.

2. Prioritize Team Understanding: Even the most meticulously planned project can falter if the team feels overwhelmed. Balancing detail with clarity is essential to keep everyone aligned and motivated.

3. Risk Management is Integral: Within the project planning process, proactive identification and management of potential risks can save significant time, costs, and headaches down the line.

4. Continuous Improvement: Taking your project planning skills to the next level involves ongoing learning, and seeking feedback is beneficial when planning to meet project goals.

5. Every Project is a Learning Experience: Whether a project sails smoothly or encounters challenges, there’s always something to learn. Using those insights in future planning endeavors enhances the quality and efficiency of subsequent projects.

"Project planning concept with a flat lay of hands, coffee, and writing tools around a central paper labeled 'PROJECT PLANNING' with related terms."

What is Project Planning?

Project Planning is a crucial phase in project management where a detailed roadmap for executing and controlling a project is developed. According to best practices from renowned standards such as PMBOK, Kerzner, and Meredith and Mantel, project planning encompasses a broad range of activities, from defining clear project objectives and deliverables to preparing schedules, budgets, and risk management strategies. It’s where the vision from the project initiation phase is transformed into actionable steps. Effective project planning ensures that resources are allocated optimally, stakeholders are informed appropriately, and challenges are anticipated. This process group lays the groundwork for a smooth project execution and is essential for meeting the project’s objectives on time, within budget and scope, and adhering to quality requirements.

In short:

A project plan, or work plan, is a blueprint of your project. It’s like a roadmap — it clearly outlines how to get from where you are now (the beginning of the project) to where you want to go (the successful completion of the project) A comprehensive project plan includes the project schedule, project scope, due dates, and deliverables. Writing a good project plan is key for any new, complex project in the pipeline.

 

Reasons You Need to Know Project Planning

The importance of robust project planning cannot be overstated. It is the backbone of any successful project, ensuring that every team member is aligned and that the project progresses in a structured and efficient manner to meet customer/client expectations.

  • Avoiding Pitfalls: Proper project planning helps foresee potential challenges and risks, ensuring proactive measures are in place.
  • Resource optimization: Ensures that resources, such as staffing, materials, or money, are used in a measured approach, avoiding waste and ensuring maximum efficiency.
  • Stakeholder AlignmentA well-planned assists in keeping project stakeholders informed and engaged in project plans, ensuring their requirements and concerns are addressed to avoid detractions.
  • Time ManagementPlanning promotes realistic project timelines and ensures those plans are followed in accordance with expectations.
  • Budget Adherence: Effective planning provides a path for projects to stay within budgetary constraints and prevent any unwanted financial surprises.

Starting a project without a concrete plan is akin to a pilot taking off and not knowing the destination. It leads to a higher probability of project failure and wasting valuable resources.

"Focused team in a business meeting with a confident female leader pointing out strategic directions, emphasizing teamwork and leadership."

Step-by-Step Instructions to Master Project Planning

Project management requires some form of structure, and project planning can transform the trajectory of your project from chaos to streamlined. The steps below are curated in part with insights from the PMBOK, Kerzner, and Meredith and Mantel.

  1. Vision Setting: Begin with a clear understanding of the project’s goals.
  2. Finalize the Scope: Clearly define what the project includes and, equally important, what it doesn’t.
  3. Stakeholder Mapping: Identify and engage all individuals or groups with a stake in the project’s outcome.
  4. Resource Blueprinting: Allocate and optimize staffing, materials, and budgets for each project during the planning phase.
  5. Risk SweepAnticipate potential pitfalls and create a risk management plan or strategy.
  6. Milestone Marking: Break down the project into smaller, manageable chunks and set clear timelines for each.
  7. Communication Planning: Establish a communication plan detailing when, how, and what will be communicated to stakeholders.
  8. Budget Balancing: Create a detailed budget, keeping potential variables in mind and ensuring adherence throughout the project.
  9. Performance Metrics: Set clear criteria to measure the project’s success and track its progress at different stages.

As we delve deeper into this article, we’ll explore these steps, shedding light on how to apply them effectively in your projects.

"Businessman looking through torn paper wall into a futuristic cityscape with graphical data overlay, symbolizing vision and planning."

Vision Setting

Vision Setting is the lighthouse that guides a project through turbulent waters. This step demands a clear understanding of the project’s ultimate aim or the problem it’s solving. Drawing from PMBOK’s emphasis on a project’s objectives, begin by engaging key stakeholders, especially those providing the project’s charter, to articulate the project sponsor desired outcome. This vision should be concise, clear, and inspiring, serving as a reference point throughout the project.

Scope Finalization

Scope Finalization defines the right and left limits of the project. In other words, what will you deliver, and what will you not? Kerzner’s practices highlight the importance of a well-defined scope to prevent scope creep. To do so:

  1. Brainstorm with project teams, stakeholders, and subject matter experts to list all potential deliverables.
  2. Categorize them as ‘in-scope’ or ‘out-of-scope.’
  3. Document this in a scope statement, ensuring everyone understands and agrees.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a particularly useful tool to help define a project scope.

Stakeholder Mapping

Projects involve and impact a range of people, directly and indirectly; therefore, ensuring a project team completes a thorough Stakeholder map is essential. It involves identifying, documenting, and prioritizing these individuals or groups. The mapping process involves:

  • Listing everyone affected by the project.
  • Gauging their influence.
  • Understanding their needs and expectations.

This map informs communication of the project team’s strategies and decision-making processes.

"Diverse group of professionals collaborating over architectural plans with various tools and digital devices on a construction blueprint."

Resource Blueprinting

Arguably, one of the most tangible aspects of project planning is Resource Blueprinting. This allocates the necessary staffing, materials, and money. Guided by PMBOK’s (6e; 2017) resource management knowledge area, it helps the project team detail the full range of resources a project will need. Resources include human resources (specific skill sets), equipment, software, locations, and budgets. Once identified, the allocation of resources is spread across the project timeline, ensuring optimal utilization.

Risk Sweep

Uncertainties are inevitable because a project is to create something new, unique, and complex. Drawing inspiration from Kerzner’s focus on risk management, the Risk Sweep involves identifying potential threats or opportunities that could impact the project. This entails qualitative risk analysis, such as brainstorming sessions, expert judgments, as well as quantitative risk analysis, such as historical data analysis. Once identified, prioritize risks based on their impact and probability. It is then up to the project manager and team to craft strategies to mitigate or exploit those risks.

Milestone Marking

Milestone Marking divides the project schedule into smaller, more digestible chunks, each with a specific deliverable. These milestones should be clearly defined, realistic, and spaced throughout the project timeline with explicit outcomes. They serve as checkpoints to measure progress and ensure the project remains on track.

"Aerial view of four people holding colorful speech bubble shaped boards in a collaborative discussion on communication strategy."

Communication Plan

A project requires efficient communication. The communication plan is influenced by PMBOK’s communication management knowledge area and details project communications’ what, when, how, and to whom. This plan should outline the communication tools, frequency, stakeholders involved, and the type of information disseminated. It’s the go-to guide, ensuring everyone remains informed and engaged.

Budget Balancing

Financial resources are almost certainly constrained; therefore, Budget Balancing is the art of aligning project needs with finite funds. Cost management explores all potential expenses, including staffing costs, software licenses, materials, etc. Then, a project manager and team should map these against the available budget. Regularly track expenses against this initial estimate, ensuring the project remains financially viable and up to date.

Performance Metrics

Performance Metrics provide an objective lens to gauge project progress and outcomes. The SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound) method should be leveraged to develop measurable objectives effectively. Define these metrics at the onset of planning, ensuring everyone understands what success looks like. Regularly measure performance against these metrics and adjust strategies as necessary.

"Team of enthusiastic professionals celebrating with a high-five in a bright, modern workshop or classroom setting."

Key Considerations For Successfully Planning a Project

The specific overarching considerations while planning a project can amplify the effectiveness of your strategy. It’s crucial to remember that the project planning phase is not a one-time activity; it’s iterative. As the project progresses, more information becomes available; your plan must be revisited and adjusted. Meredith and Mantel often emphasize the fluidity of plans, suggesting that they should be treated as living documents, adaptable to changing circumstances.

Another pivotal aspect of planning is team collaboration. It should never be a siloed task undertaken only by the project manager. Instead, it should be a collaborative effort to the maximum extent possible, leveraging team members’ diverse expertise, perspectives, and thoughts. This ensures a more robust plan and fosters team ownership and commitment.

A project manager should create a project plan that keeps the overarching objectives and organizational goals at the forefront. And while doing so, the project manager must maintain the strategic vision and view of the project. This is because a project has so many moving parts, and there’s a risk of getting lost in the details. Empowerment of tactical-level details should be entrusted to the functional managers and team leads to make recommendations based on their subject matter expertise and proximity to the work to be performed.

Taking it to the Next Level: How to Elevate Your Project Planning Skills

Consider integrating modern project management tools and software into your processes. Tools like Wrike, Trello, Asana, or Microsoft Project can offer visualizations, automated reminders, and collaboration features that streamline tasks and enhance overall productivity. These tools can offer practical, real-world applications that complement theoretical knowledge provided by research.

Continuous learning is paramount. Attend workshops, seminars, or online courses on advanced project management methodologies, Agile or Lean, or certifications like the certified associate in project management (CAPM) or project management professional (PMP) certification. Networking with other project managers and professionals may help to drive innovation that you might have yet to encounter in traditional texts. By pushing the boundaries of what you know and how you apply it, you’ll be poised to tackle even the most challenging projects with confidence.

"Man in striped sweater contemplating a wall covered with project planning notes, charts, and images in a creative office."

Final Thoughts on Project Planning

Conducting project planning takes a lot of time and effort. Having spent years in the project realm, I’ve seen mere ideas bloom into successful ventures, and I attribute much of that success to a robust project planning foundation.

I advocate for a thorough planning approach because it helps ensure every project facet is identified from initiation to closure. Always work to identify your project and organization’s unique needs. Ultimately, the best practices deliver results while maintaining symmetry within your project team and stakeholders.

Whether you’re a seasoned project manager looking to refine your skills or a novice embarking on your first project journey, understanding project planning should be a game-changer. Ultimately, a well-planned project is the road to project success!

References

Kerzner, H. (2017). Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling – Twelfth Edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Meredith, J. R., & Mantel, S. J. Jr. (2009). Project Management: A Managerial Approach – Seventh Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Project Management Institute, Inc. (2017). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) – Sixth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

About the author: Dr. Michael J. Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM, founder of ROSEMET, is a combat-wounded warrior and retired senior military officer turned esteemed academic and project management expert. Holding a doctorate from Creighton University and serving as an Assistant Professor at Western Carolina University, Dr. Shick’s dedication goes beyond credentials, as he commits to empowering individuals and organizations toward project excellence. With an extensive military, academic, and project leadership background, he epitomizes resilience, expertise, and a steadfast devotion to fostering growth and success in others.