We all know the drill of a complex project—no documentation, no clear requirements from the client, the tester doesn't know what to test, there's no timeline, or there's an unrealistic deadline, the fixes are quick and dirty, and change requests keep piling in. Sounds familiar and oh-so painful, right?
Let's see how we can overcome these challenges. In the following article, we'll explore why planning is detrimental to the project's success.
What is the project life cycle?
The project life cycle refers to the order of processes in delivering a project and a useful perspective on a project, no matter the industry, methodology, or framework used.
The project manager is the one responsible for the entire project life cycle. Among other responsibilities, the project manager will oversee the project scope, budget, resource allocation, tasks, timeline, quality, risks, and stakeholder management, and a project plan is the go-to basic step-by-step framework to oversee all these aspects of the project.
A project's life cycle is mainly split into 5 phases as defined by the Project Management Institute(PMI): Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring, and Closure. Yet, some will wholeheartedly state that the Planning stage is the most crucial of all. Let's see why.
The role of the planning stage
The planning stage is a time for clarification. Apart from setting the overall project direction, this is the time to define the desired deliverables, a timeline, milestones, and a budget. Planning is when you get a grip on the bigger picture, a time to split the project into more manageable tasks and allocate resources. It often results in documentation, such as the project scope statement (PSS) and work breakdown structure (WBS), that will act like a compass for all the professionals involved during the project life cycle. If the planning stage is done properly, it will increase the chances of project success.
Let's take a look at the differences between the trajectory of a project with and without a project plan.
Imagine you are the project. A planned project would look like a hiking activity on a 2 hours mountain route. You're well-equipped. You have water and snacks with you, and proper hiking shoes. You have ups and downs, get tired, and pause to rest, but you know exactly where the peak you have to reach is. You have marks along the way, and the path is set. Even if you trip and fall or the wind blows a little harder, you get up and back on your way in no time. You are prepared in case of pretty much anything. You reach the peak of the mountain successfully and you can yodel if you wish to do so.
As for the unplanned project, imagine a marathon. You are having a great time, relaxing, and you find out that your friends have signed you up for a marathon. What marathon? Suddenly, you hear the start whistle. All you know is that you have to start running, you don't know where the finish line is, you ask around, and everyone else is pretty much clueless. Everything is timed, and you keep on running, following the crowd hoping they'll lead the way. You had no expectations of winning anyways. It starts raining, you have no time to drink water, and you find out that you have been all running in the wrong direction, so you now have to go back. Ultimately, you reach the finish line, exhausted. You're told that your performance was not exquisite, but good job for making it through.
I believe that these scenarios sum up the two very contrasting ways a project can run with and without a proper plan. The positive scenario: the roadmap is planned, everybody knows what to do, and they're all motivated and prepared in case something unfortunate happens. There are documents to confirm the direction and expectations. The timeline is known, and the breaks are scheduled within the timeline. There's enough fuel, and even though you might be tired in the end, you have the satisfaction of a job well done. On the other hand, in the case of an unplanned project, there's a constant state of confusion, and the sudden obstacles are greatly affecting it, as nobody is prepared. There are setbacks and wasted effort and time. In the end, exhaustion takes over the satisfaction of completion, and the result is not one to be proud of.
Why is planning often skipped?
Too often, the planning phase, the time for determining the feasibility of the project, is skipped or rushed. As stated above, the project starts with the Initiation phase, where the idea of the project is communicated: mainly a rough goal and purpose of the project, and that is it. If you are lucky, you get a Project Charter, but most of the time, you're working with some scattered meeting notes. The planning phase should be the time to actually pinpoint the requirements and make the project's trajectory as clear as possible. So why is it skipped?
- Rushing into execution: The most common reason is the rushing from the business department. They want something done, and they want it done yesterday. Therefore, a lot of pressure to deliver is thrown on teams. So they receive a rough undocumented scope, and they start working. Professionals know how to tackle a scope without a project roadmap, and they figure it out as they go along, but the results will not be nearly as great, and the effort put in will be highly increased.
- Lack of understanding or expertise: Not understanding the importance of planning might be the cause of skipping it altogether.
Skipping the planning stage may result in the following:
- An affected company image;
- Affected employee well-being;
- Wastage: time, effort, development, and money;
- Lack of direction and focus;
- Misunderstanding and confusion;
- Poor communication;
- Scope creeps;
- Stakeholder relationships are negatively affected;
- Low-quality output;
- Increased risks of project failure.
Steps in Project Planning
During the Planning Stage, there are a few steps to take:
1. Establishing project needs
Analyzing the requirements, project context, goals, and objectives. Establishing relevant stakeholders, end-user needs, benefits, business impact, and feasibility. The project goals can be set with the help of the CLEAR (collaborative, limited, emotional, appreciable, refinable) goals method or SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) objectives method.
2. Creating a project plan
Creating a project plan involves creating a document to define the scope and using several project management tools such as a WBS, a Gantt chart for milestones and timeline, or stakeholder mapping. You can look at the project plan as a tool for everyone involved. There are two main roles of a project plan: it helps to monitor the project and keeps folks aligned on the project's scope. At this step, an acceptance plan should be written down to ensure everybody is on the same page when it comes to the project's success criteria and to define what "Done and delivered" means. The project plan document will most likely suffer some changes along the way, but those should be documented in a change management document, potentially negotiated and agreed upon. A proper project delivery structure will enable set targets to be achieved successfully.
3. Resource and budget management
Resource planning is a process of optimizing available resources such as manpower and funds.
Defining the costs of the project is part of budget management. This might include man-hours, tools, and other expenses associated with the development of the project. Sometimes a ballpark estimate is needed for the client, and sometimes the project manager gets a fund, and they must stay in line with that figure. A financial plan document will help you here.
When allocating resources there are a few questions to be asked: What is the right amount of resources? Who has the set of skills to do it? What is their time and effort capacity? What teams will be involved? Does the project need additional resources? You can answer these questions in a resource plan document, plus a procurement plan if any third parties are involved.
4. Risk management : It's also important to identify potential risks of the project. This way, the risk can be mitigated ahead of time, and it might affect the technical solutions decided for the project. A risk register can be separately maintained.
5. Syncing : This is when the rest of the people involved discover the master plan. It's the time to unveil the project perspective, set the responsibilities, and both ask and answer questions.
Questions to answer while planning:
- What are we going to do?
- Why are we doing it?
- How are we going to do it?
- When are we going to do it?
- How do we know that it is done?
- Who is going to contribute?
- Can we do it?
- Should we do it?
- Do we have all we need?
- Is it realistic?
- What can stop us from doing it?
The benefits of project planning
- Reduced potential risks
- Reduced project failure rates
- Increased estimation accuracy
- Facilitated project progress
- Clear project perspective
- Organized project activities and processes
- Improved communication
- Aligned involved parties
- Increased stakeholder satisfaction
- Improved performance
- Quick-decision making
- Help with cost-control
- Aid in measuring project success
- Team effort coordination
- Flexibility in regard to change requests
- Improved project quality
The planning stage is crucial nowadays, especially as more and more teams are working remotely. It outlines and clarifies the project's roadmap, roles and responsibilities, and steps to take. It is the foundation of the project.
To be perfectly frank, there is no such thing as perfect planning, and that should not be the goal. There will be roadblocks and poor estimations, and unknowns. Nonetheless, having a project plan in place sets some boundaries and expectations and can be a tool that can raise some questions no one has thought about before laying it all on "paper". It is a way to shed some light on a process that is complex and oftentimes complicated, a way of avoiding project chaos, misalignments, and jeopardized project quality.
The time spent planning will save a lot of hassle along the way and increase the chances of delivering a to-be-proud-of project with enough energy to celebrate it in the end.