How to Think Ahead With a Project Plan

Do you see the project planning process as a hoop you have to jump through to get to the real work? Yes, I know…we all want to bypass the planning and get on with the execution.

We are ready to develop the deliverables and solve the world’s problems. The project team wants to get their hands dirty and show the sponsor and stakeholders that they are in the thick of things.

woman thinking

Let’s skip the planning stuff and get on with it! Not so quick my dear friend. Danger lies ahead.

Every white-water rafter will tell you the same thing – scout a rapid when you are a safe distance away. You see the Danger! Rapids Ahead signs. The prudent rafter exits the river to check out what’s ahead and to determine their approach to the rapids.

Experienced project managers understand this principle too. Before entering the uncertain waters of a project, we bring the future into the present. We develop a plan that allows us to make our journey safely. Who knows, we may even have a little fun along the way.

Finding a Crystal Ball

Can a crystal ball reveal the future? Not really. However, there are ways to think about the future and take preventive measures early. Here are some tools and techniques:

  • Premortem
  • Project Simulations
  • Reviewing the archives of similar projects
  • Talking with experienced project managers of similar projects

Fuzzy Thinking About Project Plans

Many people think a project plan is a Gantt chart. It’s not. So, what is it? The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) says the project plan is “a central document that defines the basis of all project work.” Project managers and their teams consider the future work, things that may impede their ability, and things that may enhance their ability. Then the project manager develops a comprehensive plan that defines how the project will be executed, monitored and controlled, and closed (even for change-driven projects). People ask me, “How big should the project plan be?” Big enough. The content of the plan will vary depending on the size and complexity of the project. The project manager progressively elaborates the plan over time.

All in the Family

Let’s look at the components of a project plan. Project managers determine which components would be helpful and how much detail is required. Keep the plan as simple as possible. Use templates when possible. Here are some common components:

  • Baselines for scope, schedule, and cost
  • Subsidiary plan for the 10 project knowledge areas
  • Requirements Management Plan
  • Change Management Plan
  • Configuration Management Plan
  • Process Improvement Plan

Creating a Project Plan is a Waste of Time – Really?

Some project managers complete a project plan because the Project Management Office (PMO) requires a plan. These project managers are likely missing the benefits of the exercise.

The purpose of developing a project plan is not to meet a documentation requirement – it’s to collaborate and communicate with your project team and key stakeholders.

For example, wise project managers develop the schedule and the associated baseline through discussions with the project team. The collective wisdom of the team aids in developing a complete schedule. The exercise often reveals assumptions, constraints, and conflicts; it allows the team to work through issues earlier in the project.

What’s Your Maintenance Plan?

As we execute the plan, we will invariably realize the plan needs tweaking. We see things that we could not see when planning. Change requests may be submitted to make changes to project plans and documents.

Project managers monitor and control project work. They track, review, and report the progress to meet the project goals. As project managers see a significant variance in the planned results to the actual results, additional change requests may be merited to modify the plan and/or project processes.

As changes are made to the plan, be sure to use appropriate configuration control and distribute updated documents. Always display the version control numbers. Every team member should have access to the latest project plan with all the components.

Planning in an Agile World

All projects can benefit from a project plan. The plan will be different for a plan-driven project (i.e., traditional waterfall project) vs. a change-driven project (i.e., agile project). Why? Because the lifecycle and approaches are different.

For example, the schedule baseline for a plan-driven project would include all the activities for the entire project. The schedule baseline for a change-driven project may only include the first sprint or two. As the project progresses, the schedule would be updated for the next sprints.

Waiting Until There are Issues to Respond

I read an article recently that surprised me. The author was suggesting that planning and taking proactive approach was a waste of time. Why? Because we there is so much uncertainty…we can’t possibly put together a plan that works.

The author went on to say the best course of action is to wait until there is an issue. Then we will know how to take action based on the present situation. Huh?

A prudent project manager doesn’t wait until he or she is in the rapids to develop a response plan. Look ahead. Plan. Execute. Revise. Enjoy the ride!

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2 thoughts on “How to Think Ahead With a Project Plan

  1. Hi Harry

    Another great article – I currently have a project subject to numerous changes (change events have increased the project’s value by a third already) so would be interested in seeing an expansion of the section relating to that?

    Keep up the great work.


  2. Great post, Harry. Your posts have helped me organize my thoughts more efficiently, head possible problems off before they occur and create better results. This has helped me in a variety of ways…from creating a better speech, to organizing a Christmas program, to planning my mom’s 90th birthday bash. Thanks!

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