Congratulations! Your proposal won, and the boss made you the PM for that big project.
Now it is time to start stamping metal and shipping boxes… or more likely, not. Jumping straight in, without a schedule or even a plan, is a false economy for fools that have yet to learn luck strikes both ways. Often that first step is imagined as more difficult than it needs to be and is skipped, resulting in a fall later.
Making a plan, and building a schedule is not, and should never be, some onetime event to get past at the beginning but rather a living thing that should grow, at times literally with the weather. But like the weather, at some point, every project will have some degree of uncertainty or events that it must adapt to.
Planning makes all the difference in where you apply your margin of error so that you can deal with the risk of uncertainties, and still have confidence that your schedule has cushion time available in it to jump on opportunities as they arise.
4 Pointers for Planning to Plan
Here are some simple pointers to help you take that first step right to get your project up and running:
1. Failing to plan, is planning to fail
We have all heard this truism, but very few PM’s think to apply this to planning itself. It is easy to say the customer did not ask for any formal documents or perhaps you are your own boss with no one to answer to but yourself. But at some point, you’d also like to finish that project and maybe even get paid for it.
Deadlines, invoicing, resource constraints or even just your own personal time all impact your project and deserve a few moments of thought. Maybe your project is small enough, and those few thoughts are all you really need. Or it is really big and will take some time to work through all the unknowns. Asking questions about project scale is the start of your planning to plan, just that easy.
PRO TIP: It is easier to dial back on the level of detail in your record keeping than it is to go back and try to piece information together after things break.
2. Rolling wave planning
The dirty secret is not trying to plan every detail from the beginning, but rather to plan for when you need to know and how you plan to get those details.
If you are going to hammer a million nails and have never touched a hammer, you might want to update your schedule after you hit one, and maybe again after you hit your thumb a few times. In fact, if anyone ever tells you they are done planning because they did it all at the beginning, then they are lying to you and probably themselves.
Does the project have a major milestone? Do shipments only arrive on Wednesdays? Do you have invoices or payroll to factor in? Make it your planning plan to use these natural rhythms to give a few moments to look back at how well reality agreed with your schedule and use what you learned to add those details into the path ahead.
PRO TIP: It may sound redundant, but date your schedule. Change the file name and save it as a new file. If it impacts a deadline or an external commitment, then print the new parts they need and ask them to sign and date it.
3. No plan survives past first contact
The analogies between combat and project management eventually come up when talking about the other. Putting debates on who your “enemy” is aside, expect the unexpected. Plans are just that, plans. Do not get attached to them. Deliveries get lost, trucks have flats, kids get sick… every schedule needs a little float if it has any chance of making it against the “enemy.”
PRO TIP: Things happening ahead of schedule can be just as bad a delay. (Concrete sets and cookies burn) Be mindful and have a plan for both possibilities.
4. Risk and Margin of Error
Good, you made it this far. You have your schedule detailed as far out as the eye can see (or at least until payday). You added the float, by doubling the time and cost of everything, so you will always come out looking good with the boss (maybe less so with the customer).
You can see victory just past that dark cloud ahead, that new oddball task that you just do not know enough about to know how to guesstimate how to plan for it. At some point, every project will have a degree of risk and uncertainty, adjust your plan accordingly. Maybe instead of doubling everything, tighten up where you can with the tasks you have done before, and apply more in areas of less certainty to mitigate damage.
PRO TIP: Spreading your scheduling margin of error out throughout all the tasks is fine for a best guess case. But consider consolidating it in one place and treating it like a management reserve account. This will allow you to look at best and worst cases and use that reserve wisely on the biggest risks and opportunities.
To Conclude for Now…
Great things in life are rarely easy, but with the right tools, they can be done.
Did you find this article on “planning to plan” helpful? What would you add to this list?