Project Management 101 Part Two: Planning to Succeed

July 1, 2016 Hala Saleh

PM expert Hala Saleh shares her 5 steps to project planning success.

office planning meeting

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

It’s one of my favorite quotes. Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of in marketing.

Most of us, regardless of whether we are in marketing or not, end up just kind of picking up work and doing it. Once we receive a work request (see my first post in this series “Project Management 101 Part One: Managing Requests Like a Pro”), we tend to skip the planning phase and just go right to execution, which is a shame. After all, it’s the planning phase that gets you thinking, asking critical questions, and having discussions and conversations.

At the same time, when we plan, we also understand that plans—in some way, shape, or form—are disposable.

So, at this point, you might ask, “Well, which one is it? Is planning worth the time it takes? Or should it be abolished from project management altogether, since it’s bound to be thrown out the window at some point anyway?”

Ultimately, planning is absolutely essential to a successful project. Yes, things change when you start working on a project and identify things that you didn’t know in the beginning. But having a plan means that you’ve thought through what happens in a worst case scenario, or what happens if you need a plan B.

That is not to say that planning is pain-free. Especially when first getting a hang of it, project planning certainly has its challenges. By following certain steps during the planning phase, however, you can overcome these challenges and reap the benefits that come only from planning.

Marketers planning projects as a team

Step 1: Break Things Into Manageable Chunks

As humans, we are typically really bad at estimating. This applies whether you’re planning to clean out your garage, create an email marketing campaign, or develop a piece of software.. We tend to either over- or under-estimate the work involved. But there is a highly effective way to overcome this challenge and keep your eye on the next upcoming milestone: Take big pieces of work and break them down into chunks of work that we can measure.

Once we start breaking work into smaller pieces, we start to uncover the assumptions we’ve made, correct or incorrect, when we were trying to estimate the larger pieces of work.

So remember, even if it’s something you think you know how to do, or it’s something that feels like a small task, by breaking it into its sub-parts, you realize there’s more involved than you thought.

Step 2: Documenting Your Workflow

This is a critical point in understanding all the steps involved in getting a project from start to finish (i.e., your workflow). It is also lays the foundation for you to optimize that workflow. This exercise is called Value Stream Mapping, and it allows you to think through the steps you currently implement when executing a workflow or task.

An example of value stream mapping could be: Map your workflow for making a cup of tea:

  1. Fill the kettle with water
  2. Boil the water on the stove
  3. Find your favorite mug (wash it if it’s dirty)
  4. Place a tea bag in your favorite mug
  5. Pour boiling water over tea bag
  6. Steep tea for 3 minutes
  7. Drink tea

Perhaps, by mapping your workflow, you find out that you actually need to wash your mug EVERY single time you make tea, and it’s slowing you down. Maybe a solution to that is to buy multiple mugs of your favorite mug, or always make sure you get the dishes done the night before. The point is, mapping your workflow is a great way to find where you and your team have inefficiencies, or waste, in your process.

At this point, I wish I could give you a template that you could follow for every project. Unfortunately, everyone’s workflow is unique to how they get work done in their environment, in their team, in their company. Fortunately, documenting your own unique workflow is as close as your next project. Here’s one example of a value stream map that describes creating, publishing, and sending an email notification for a blog article.

Value Stream Map Marketing

To start documenting, keep track of your workflow as you’re working on projects. Record what the steps you typically go through. For example:

  1. A requestor submits request
  2. You produce a first version
  3. Three people review
  4. Produce second version based on review feedback

This goes on and on, all the way to marking the request ‘complete’. As mentioned above, you want to get as granular as necessary in how you break out these steps. In your workflow, are there more sub-steps involved in “producing a first version”? Make note of them.

The more exact your workflow documentation, the more power you will have to estimate how long your work will take and optimize your workflow.

Step 3: Optimizing Your Workflow

Of course, this starts with documenting what works and what doesn’t. One thing I do a lot with teams is reflect on how things are going. In fact, every team should do this on a regular basis. It can be as simple as sitting down for a quick chat, something like:

  • We changed our process in these specific ways, A B and C. What about those things that we implemented or put in place worked really well?
  • What isn’t working really well and why?
  • Is it a problem with the process step, necessarily? Or is it a problem with not everybody understanding how to execute it?

With the answers to these questions in hand, you can focus on eliminating the things that aren’t working and obviously spending more time and energy on the things that are.

Planning workflow

Step 4: Create the Schedule

One of the big problems with schedules is that it’s hard to create a schedule when you feel like you’re always fighting fires. If you’re like most marketing teams, you get stuck in this world of over-promising while not really knowing how long things will take and then constantly running up against deadlines.

Sadly, in marketing, we’re at the mercy of our deadlines, which makes it really hard to create schedules sometimes—especially when everything is due yesterday. We try to create a schedule and set a deadline, only to end up either pushing the deadlines or not delivering all of the scope that we promised to deliver.

Create your initial schedule with this harsh truth in the forefront of your mind. This practice will take the edge off your frustration later.

Step 5: Talk Openly About Tradeoffs

One important note here is that having to push back a deadline or delivering under scope is actually okay, if you’ve established an understanding with your stakeholders about what is most important to them. Are they willing to sacrifice some scope to hit a deadline? Or vice versa?

If deadline takes precedence over scope for the client, then you must turn your focus to delivering first those things that the client values most first, as long as it makes sense sequentially.

These are the kinds of the trade-offs with schedule and scope that you must discuss and decide on with your stakeholders during the planning phase.

Plan to Succeed

Although every project is subject to unexpected surprises, a well-thought out plan that focuses on the highest value activities can go a long way toward setting expectations you are confident you can meet, and then delivering on those expectations. Even if/when surprises arise, your plan will position you better to adapt. Always remember to consider the point of diminishing returns when planning. Ensure you have a clear path forward, but try to avoid getting into the nitty gritty of every single task.


About the Author

Hala Saleh

Hala is a speaker, entrepreneur, and technologist who transforms organizations and creates real, tangible business results. She is also the president of 27Sprints and the co-founder of Produktivity Box.

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