Why you should develop project management skills even if you aren’t a project manager – part 2 – Effective Planning

Effective planning is such a critical tool for a project manager (PM) and planning is required in much of our personal and professional lives.  Planning an event, planning the weekly shop, planning a restructure, planning the production of a car and so on.  You need to understand: who is involved, what is required, how long it will take, and how much it will cost.  You also need to recognise that there will be variables for these and external influences that might change who is involved, what is required, how long it will take, and how much it will cost.

My professional focus is project management.  By definition projects are unique event that bring about change, which need to be delivered to a budget, within a timeframe, and to a certain specification.  They have inherent uncertainty and risk involved because they are unique (though there may be similar projects, so you can use those in your planning process). 

Key competences within project management include risk management; schedule management resource management and estimating. All of these competences require effective planning. Planning how you’re going to govern the project in terms of process, procedures, templates etc. And planning how you are going to manage and deliver the project: for example, identifying, assessing and prioritising risk and then responding using finite resources effectively within your schedule.

Risk management requires you to identify risks which could positively or negatively impact on your ability to deliver your project objectives. You then assess and prioritise those risks to enable you to focus on the most important ones. You can then plan how you are going to respond, for example: are you going to mitigate to reduce the probability or potential impact? Or mitigate to avoid the risk all together? Or are you going to except the risk for now because it has a low probability and/or low impact or is the cost of doing higher then the potential benefits? One of the primary functions of risk management is quantifying and planning for uncertainty.

Schedule management requires clear identification of tasks or ‘work packages’ (WPs); a clear understanding of how long each of those WPs will take; and the logical sequence of WPs. You need to be clear what the relationship is between WPs:  can they run in parallel?  Or does one WP need to be completed before the next one can start?  

A common tool within project management to achieve this is known as critical path analysis. This is based on planning through a network diagram and understanding the logical relationship between your WPs. Critical path analysis enables you to identify longest path through a network of activities and hence overall project duration. It also enables you to identify ‘float’ or ‘slack’ which identifies potential wriggle room within your project.  Understanding these factors enables you to clearly plan a sequence of WPs but it also supports in planning resource usage.

Resource management utilises the knowledge identified in schedule management because you need to understand where WPs sit within the project schedule, but rather than focusing on the duration you explore and identify the resources required at each point on that schedule. You are then able to identify where you have bottlenecks or resource ‘over- or under-loading’. This enables you to identify problem and pressure points and to make adjustments.

This planning helps a PM as it identifies where you may be able to adjust the use of your resources. For example, where you have got insufficient resource (people for example) at a particular time, is it possible you spread that task across a wider timeframe (where you have float)?  Or do you need to bring in additional resources to meet a deadline?  These techniques are known as resource levelling or smoothing.  By planning what is required at the beginning PM is able to make decisions effectively.

A key difficulty in planning for risks, schedules and resources within a project has already been identified above. Namely that projects are unique, so you might not be able to identify exactly how long a WP or overall project will take, or exactly how many of a particular resource is required for a given task.  Therefore, another critical skill within project management is estimating.

There are some common techniques for estimating in a PMs tool kit.  For example, analytical (bottom up) estimating is where you identify each of the WPs, and then estimate what resources and time are required to deliver that particular WP and then you can add all of the WP estimates together and come up with an overall project estimate.

Another technique to support this process is known as 3-point estimating.  Here you identify the best case (shortest or cheapest possibility); your most likely case;  and your worst case (longest or most expensive possibility).  This gives you an average estimate for those WPs, with levels of tolerance. It should be noted with estimating there is potential for subjectivity and human error, and therefore experience, knowledge and lessons learned will support making these more accurate.

it should also be noted that planning shouldn’t just happen at the beginning of a project. It should constantly be reviewed as the project progresses and changes due to variables and external factors (external factors will be considered in a later blog).  So you must regularly review your risk registers, schedules and resource plans as performance information becomes available and the project progresses.

This is because as project progress is your knowledge of internal and external factors and influences and risks become clearer so you are able to make your plans more accurate.  This phenomenon is often referred to as the estimating funnel, where as time progress we become clearer on our situation.

Having schedules and resource requirements is not unique to project management. There are many situations which require delivering to a deadline or within a budget and to a certain specification.  For example, within a production environment where it’s critical that the product works through a complex production line within a set time frame; or organising a large wedding where you have a number of different factors that need to be planned within a schedule.  Within both of these examples resources and budgets are clearly needed to ensure that tasks are completed satisfactorily.

Sometimes you can know exactly how much of a resource you need (e.g. 1 wedding dress) and exactly how long it will take to do something.  However, as with projects, even with these events risks need to be factored in.  For example, is there an issue with the supplier? Is there going to be a problem with machinery that needs to be fixed to ensure production line is working efficiently? These are things you can’t quantify for exactly, but they still need to be dealt with.  It’s probably not an option for the production line to stop for a long period of time or the wedding dress to not be available on the big day.  Therefore estimating and risk management needs to be used (whether formally or informally). 

Planning is critical whenever you need to deadlines and targets.  When things are required? How many things are required?  What might get in the way or prevent me from achieving my target?  Contingency planning (part of risk management) enables you to deal with problems in your schedule or supply chain. If a problem arises you’re still better placed, if you have effectively planned, to deliver your product or to attend the church on time!

accentuate can help you develop effective project management skills – contact us on +44 1223 752635 to find out more.

Topics to be covered in future series include – risk management (in more detail), requirements and scope management, governance and understanding the context and external influences of projects.