5 Ways to Create the Perfect Project Plan

5 Ways to Create the Perfect Project Plan

So, you’ve just secured your latest project and after a tense month long negotiations, the project is ready to start. But, as the euphoria of having work for the next few months dies off, reality begins to sink in. Now you’re tasked with creating and presenting a project plan. You know the abysmal completion rate, only 2.5% companies successfully complete their projects completely after all.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there. You also remember the last project went through a complete overhaul and three deadline revisions before it was accepted, you have four new employees who need to be brought up to speed and certain unique features requested just might turn into sticking points.

Of course, all this can be circumvented if you had a good project plan to follow. But, is there even such a thing? After all, no one can predict how the future will unfold. Even though the picture can appear grim, fear not, the art of project management has evolved to a point where you can create a plan, follow through on it and make course corrections as and when needed. Let’s take a look at how you can make your next project your most perfect one yet.

1. Identify Stakeholders and Their Expectations

A common problem that many managers are guilty off when planning a project is that they consider the process superior to the people it will affect or those who will carry it out. Without making the human element central, your project is going to run into problems.

The first step therefore is getting to know the people who your project will involve and making sure they are fully onboard. A stakeholder is anyone who your project is going to affect. However, key project stakeholders are people who are directly involved with the project. Consider creating a list of both key and non-key stakeholders and mapping them on a power-interest grid from pmi.org.

The power-interest grid divides people into a matrix of four boxes based on their power over the project and how much interest they have in its success. Each box in the grid will need to have communication tailored to it. For instance, people in the key stakeholders will require greater focus than someone who has low power and low interest box. The aim here is to ensure that your efforts are optimized to each stakeholder’s level of interest and say in the project.

Use your early power-interest grid based communications as an excuse to find out what each of the stakeholders want. For instance, if a certain key subject shows reluctance at certain aspects of the project, then ask them to share their preferred version of events. See how well it serves the overall project and company goal(s) and try to come to a common ground.

While humans are inherently unpredictable, everyone ultimately has an agenda vis-a-vis whatever they are doing. On that ground, they are perfectly predictable 🙂 If you can figure out what each stakeholder’s personal goals are and how well they align with the project goals, you will be able to manage conflict much better.

Read more on how to manage expectations in our article on Management 3.0.

2. Work With Stakeholders to Identify Deliverables and Goals

When defining project deliverables, it’s best to work backwards from the main objective. A deliverable is anything that is:

  • Within the scope of the project
  • Is agreed upon by all stakeholders
  • Is the result of deliberate work
  • Helps accomplish the project’s objective

 
Each stakeholder will be affected by your goals so, it’s wise to consult with them when setting the project parameters. A good way to erase conflict from your project is to make stakeholder communication a two-way strategy, i.e. don’t just tell them why certain aspects are important, ask them what they’d like out of it, too. In doing so, you might even end up better deliverables than you had originally envisioned.

For instance, Virgin Trains regularly brainstorms ideas with train crews. In one of such sessions, customer service assistant suggested to hire famous chef – Bryn Williams who frequented on one of their trains. While she didn’t expect the idea to be acted upon, her senior acted on it and tweeted to Williams if they’d like to be a part of their catering team. The idea worked and Virgin’s customers were delighted, ordering more dishes than ever before. Not only did Virgin’s strategy produce a better deliverable, but the staff were happy to have been directly involved in the outcome as well.

3. Set a Schedule that Everyone Agrees On

Now, we all know creating the perfect schedule is damn near impossible, which is why it is best to take our own capacity with a grain of salt when setting one. As a schedule’s objective is to accomplish deadlines, it is best to set them realistically.

Consider having two sets of deadlines, an internal deadline which is assigned to teams and an external one which is either given to management or clients. The internal deadline should at least be a few days behind the external deadline (if not a week or more). This way, your teams will always have time to revise should it be required.

Of the number of tools that are available, Gantt Charts are the most prevalent and time tested methods for visualizing your schedule. A Gantt Chart helps you track both time and resources from start to finish. While you can create Gantt Charts in Excel or Google Spreadsheets, Runrun.it provides an intuitive cloud based time tracking tool that can help you stay on top of your project deadlines, send reminders and make changes effortlessly as and when needed.

Finally, as a project manager you need to know how to negotiate deadlines (it won’t be a stretch to say that your career might even depend on it). Some strategies to try out:

  • Don’t just agree on any deadline that the client/management suggests. It won’t matter anyways if you can’t meet it
  • Offer reasonable alternatives that make sense to everyone involved
  • Get your team involved. Ascertain how long each of the deliverables might take to complete. Feel free to add some wiggle room in there
  • Learn to negotiate. The chances of your suggested deadline to be accepted on the first go are slim. Be prepared to compromise

 
Read more on time management and how to master its essential skills.

4. Identify Risks That Threaten Your Project Plan

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable said Dwight D. Eisenhower. The meaning here being that whatever we plan, circumstances will always blindside us. As a project manager, you have to look out for ways in which your project can go astray and have contingency measures handy should they do so.

Some common risks you are likely to come across include deadlines being pushed, team members becoming unavailable, creative-blocks, disagreement between stakeholders, acts of god etc. The more such issues you are aware of, the better you will be prepared to handle them. Here’s how…

  • Ask your fault finders

Many teams will have members who are great at annoying everyone by telling them why they are wrong. Everytime. If you do have them around, sit them down and explain your plans to them. Let nature take its course and you should have a long list of possible pitfalls within the next 10-20 minutes.

  • Consider risks faced before

Have you worked on similar projects before? If so, what risks did you face then? Draw from yours and your team’s experience to list out what-if scenarios and brainstorm contingency measures against them.

  • Find out similar risks online

Why only rely on your own experience when you can learn from others? Check online web-boards, answer sites and articles to see what issues people faced when tackling similar projects. Also, check out Tom Kendrick’s PERIL database for a list of problems you are likely to encounter.

5. Track Everything

The best thought out project plan is bound to fail if it isn’t tracked properly. Tracking used to be difficult in the pre-cloud era when everything needed closer scrutiny from project managers. However, cloud based productivity tools such as Runrun.it allow all stakeholders to stay on top of their own and their associate’s progress at all times. Reminders can be sent out to those who are lagging behind and managers can identify risky areas that need their attention.

Learn why cloud based project management tools are great for tracking your project plans.

Conclusion

It’s best to think of your project plan as a perpetual work in progress. Consider documenting each version of your plan (especially where things went wrong) as thoroughly as possible. As you go along you should begin to see patterns. Your team(s) will generally excel in some areas while others will need more thought put into it. Improving the latter and turning the former into competitive advantages or USPs will help you deliver better results.

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