Project ManagementLook Before You Leap and Other Crucial Steps in Project Planning

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Does your workday often feel like you are working in the Emergency Room? Every patient (aka project) brought your way comes at you with a sense of urgency. If you rush each patient in for a treatment without asking questions and further investigating what is needed, you could be wasting valuable time and money going in the wrong direction. Imagine simply throwing a sling on a car crash victim and offering stitches to someone who is having an allergic reaction to a bee sting.

Why the tangent about this imaginary day at the ER? To demonstrate to you that one must go through a process first before slapping on solutions. The same rings true for project planning.

Projects are often assigned with very little time to plan, or so it seems. Unrealistic deadlines can push employees to run screaming through the halls demanding charts. Before leaping right into things, take a look around at what information you must first gather so you can assess what needs to take place. Just one hour to plan ahead properly will save you time in the end while meeting your deadline. Best of all you’ll do it without hitting speed bumps and conflicts.

Outlining Deliverables and Acceptance Criteria

First, you must identify the high level deliverable for each main subset of the project. A deliverable is something concrete (defined by a noun) that you need in order to progress to the next stage of the project.

You must also deliver the acceptance criteria. The acceptance criteria are the measurable characteristics of what makes the final and interim deliverable acceptable. This is often defined by what the client is expecting. If you don’t know the answers then you need to ask more questions and learn more about the goal of your project.

There are two approaches you can take when defining the interim deliverables. These steps are a means of discover and discussion for the project team. The team learns more from each other by laying out the project this way than if one person creates the whole thing and then shares it with other team members.

If you know the high level breakout of deliverables to create your final deliverable, then use the Top Down Deliverables and Acceptance Criteria. This means beginning with the ultimate output of the project and then working down into the details of the project to see how they will create that output.

If you are unsure, then try the Bottom Up Deliverables and Acceptance Criteria technique. This begins by brainstorming and identifying all the aspects of the project that must be completed in order to create the final deliverable. These aspects are then grouped into logical order to create the final deliverable. This approach can be spearheaded by the team leader through a technique called affinity diagramming.

With your team, group the related items near each other. Try to create no more than five main groups. This should take your team about five to fifteen minutes. If you think an item belongs in more than one group, make a note of it. Develop titles for your groups and then break them out into sub groups (also with titles). Now you can see your high level deliverables, your interim deliverables and your acceptance criteria. Next, identify who will be responsible for each high-level deliverable.

Identifying Process and ConflictProcesses to Create Deliverables

Now that you’ve identified the deliverables and their acceptance criteria, move ahead to identify existing processes – if any – that need to be used to create your interim deliverables. Team members who have been through this drill before can lend insight into what processes exist and work well versus what processes do not exist or just do not work well.

Conflicts that impact creating the deliverables

Identify conflicts with other projects that might impact creating the final and interim deliverables. This part of the planning section is the place where you specify what else is going on in your environment and identify how it will impact your project. The team members should communicate how that will impact the project and offer a solution or “work-arounds” to continue moving forward. By including the team in these decisions early on, they will be vested in solving issues and keeping the project afloat throughout its lifetime.

Smart Tools: Tree Diagrams and Milestone Reviews

Building a Tree Diagram

You’re almost there! Next on the agenda, examine and assess the responsibilities for the entire project. This will help you distribute work evenly and match it up with the ability of the project team members to complete the interim deliverables. One smart tool is a tree diagram. This exercise summarizes each team member’s task for creating each interim deliverable. The team can use a tree diagram to check for overlap or duplicate deliverables. The team can also identify situations where one team member is better suited than another for an assigned interim deliverable.

Milestone Review

If one to two people are relying on the successful completion of an interim deliverable to move their part forward, the project team should consider having a formal review of the deliverable. To do this, create a chart with five columns:

  • Project Milestone Review (interim deliverable)
  • Purpose of Review
  • Reviewers
  • Approval to Move Forward
  • Date of Review

Formal reviews are perfect for keeping an open dialogue between the team members to discuss what is or is not going well.

Taking a Risk

The last step is to assess and quantify the risks for creating each of the interim deliverables. This is an important step as it allows the team to take the findings and apply them to whether the project agreement needs to be revised. Studying the risks, also puts you in the driver’s seat to troubleshoot any issues that could arise through the duration of the project.

An Hour of Your Time

This project planning plan should take a little over an hour to complete:

30 minutes — Identify deliverables and acceptance criteria
10 minutes — identify processes
10 minutes — identify conflicts
10 minutes — tree diagram
20 minutes — milestone reviews

Preparing your staff with the right information and tools will minimize the emergencies and maximize productivity. Feeling empowered to make the right decision enables employees to have some control over their workday, think clearer and produce powerful results. Whether your project has a deadline in the far future or was due yesterday, if you take the time learn to what is needed, you’ll prescribe the best treatment and see a healthy outcome.

About the Author

Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a penchant for making success easy, fun and fast. She is the founder of Cheetah Learning, the author of the Cheetah Success Series, and a prolific blogger whose mission is to bring Project Management to the masses. She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Manager’s (OPM) program and also holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton.
She lives in Nevada with her family and likes to rejuvenate in Alaska where you’ll often find her kayaking, hiking, and riding her motorcycle.

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