How you develop and record your plan is very much a matter of personal preference but here are a few pointers to successful planning.
There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ plan.
If you are working with a commercial software supplier or consultancy firm they may present their standard plan at an early stage in the project initiation. This will be a useful template as it is based on tried and tested methodologies and past experience but you will need to use your detailed knowledge to adapt it to your own particular circumstances.
View the plan as a flexible framework to be adapted and changed.
It is no good sticking rigidly to a plan that isn’t working and ploughing ahead in the wrong direction.
An example of how you might think about planning is to imagine you are captaining a yacht that needs to get from A to B. You know where your objective (B) is but the optimum route to get there may vary from hour to hour as wind and weather conditions alter.
Only plan in detail as far ahead as is sensible at the time.
This concept of the sliding planning window is our preferred approach to planning. This technique is also known as rolling-wave planning.
It is based on the premise that you should only plan in detail as far ahead as is sensible at the time. There are managers who try to plan a project in minute detail from beginning to end hoping to eliminate uncertainty. This isn’t possible. A detailed plan takes a lot of time and effort to develop and maintain. A plan that is too detailed too far ahead will simply consume resources and become inflexible.
Break your plan down into phases or stages.
The completion of each phase may require the achievement of a set of milestones in the plan. Phasing and milestones represent the logical sequence of activities required to achieve the project goals.
A milestone plan is a high level summary of the whole project. It should be easy to understand, logical and focussed on WHAT needs to be delivered not HOW this will be done.
Phase boundaries highlight points in the project where progress is reviewed and the plan reassessed.
Use your plan as a communication tool.
The number of phases and milestones in a plan is necessarily dependent on the scale and complexity of the project. You don’t want to make your plan too complex but you should also beware of having too few milestones.
Remember your plan isn’t only an administrative tool; it is a political and communication tool as well. The plan gives a picture of the project’s progress to stakeholders as well as to the project team. A well-crafted plan can help to ensure the success of the project by identifying quick wins and easily achievable milestones early in the life of the project. This helps to build stakeholder confidence in the project and to boost the morale of the project team.
In the section on ‘Why projects fail’ we identified causes as including not only unrealistic deadlines but also timescales that are too protracted. A project that goes on for too long without obvious achievements will be perceived as failing.
Consider including ‘pilots’ in your plan.
Depending on the nature of your project you may wish to think about phasing your plan to include Piloting the system, process or change you are implementing in a small area.
Pilots, by their very nature, tend to engender a lot of commitment from the people involved. They can also teach you a lot about project management.
Define your deliverables!
At whatever level of detail you plan, ensure that each task in the plan has a clearly defined Deliverable. This means a tangible product that shows you have successfully completed the task. For instance, don’t give tasks labels such as ‘think about'; ‘look at’ or ‘investigate’. Define what output the task should produce – this could be a document, a piece of code, a cleansed data file etc, etc.
These guidelines are based on tried and tested good practice in project planning and have been shown to be effective in the education sector. That said, you may well find that some of the concepts meet with resistance from your steering groups. In particular the concept of flexible planning is an uncomfortable one for many people because it openly acknowledges that we are dealing with risk and uncertainty.
We can only repeat the advice given above – the uncertainty won’t go away however much time you spend on planning. There is an empirical rule which states that if you apply a certain amount of effort (x) to produce a plan of a certain degree of accuracy then to double that accuracy requires quadruple the effort (4x) and so on. The trick is to get the right balance between planning and managing risk.
Your initial plan, once it is signed off by the Project Sponsor or Project Board, forms a Baseline against which progress is measured and variance analysed and reported.