CXO

Why planning is the most critical step in project management

Planning may not be the most enjoyable component of managing projects, but it is the most vital part for reducing risk and failure rates. Here's why.

Project planning plays an essential role in helping guide stakeholders, sponsors, teams, and the project manager through other project phases. Planning is needed to identify desired goals, reduce risks, avoid missed deadlines, and ultimately deliver the agreed product, service or result. Without careful planning, project performance is almost certainly guaranteed to suffer. The Project Management Institute estimates that as of 2017, organizations were wasting an average of $97 million for every $1 billion invested, due to poor project performance.

Project planning requires breaking down a larger project into tasks, assembling a project team, and determining a schedule over which the work is to be completed. During this phase, you create smaller goals within the larger project, making sure each is achievable within the time frame.

Reasons for insufficient planning

The old adage "failure to plan is planning to fail" certainly holds true when managing projects. After all, how can you manage a project without determining how and when you are going to manage it? Yes, planning takes time and effort, and is in no way exciting (for most of us), but it is necessary for success. So why do project managers rush this step? Here are three reasons:

  1. Unrealistic project expectations. Many project managers have encountered situations where they were saddled with unrealistic expectations. The pressure to complete a project in a specified amount of time may have caused them to either skip or rush through the planning phase.
  2. Impatience. This can play a significant role in why project managers gloss over the planning phase and jump right into execution. This need to skip over the most critical project management phase will likely result in regret and rework, at the very least.
  3. A lack of understanding. Not understanding how planning affects the successful execution of projects may be one of the biggest reasons planning is ignored.

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What does careful planning help to achieve?

Planning identifies and reduces potential risks

Risk is always lurking in the background, whether at a micro or macro level. What may seem like a minor risk to a task could pose a larger threat later during project execution. Proper planning allows teams to ensure that risks can be mitigated against and that smaller tasks roll-up into milestones that meet with the larger goals of the project, reducing potential risks.

Reducing project failure rates

Planning is the second phase of project management. This is where you cross the T's and dot the I's. It's where the scope of the project is laid out, where the timeline, costs, deliverables and the details are ironed out. This is where expectations are set and assumptions are identified. Without this vital step, it is almost certain things will fall through the cracks and a project team is bound to miss crucial details, deadlines and eventually deliverables.

SEE: A simple Excel timesheet for tracking work hours (free download) (TechRepublic)

How to become an expert planner

To become an expert at planning, work on anticipating all aspects of a project that will either create a win or risk the outcome. First, determine if the project aligns with broader business objectives. If it does not, the project should be revisited more closely. There will be situations whereby a project is still required in order to address an isolated problem that may not necessarily be part of the bigger strategic picture.

Make sure to get a solid understanding of your end goal(s), break down what needs to be done to meet those goals, then identify tasks and milestones that are needed to be achieved.

Once you have done this, determine the resources needed to complete each task and identify any potential risks or obstacles, and how each risk can be addressed.

The key in planning is to look at each of the knowledge areas below and make sure you and your team will address each of these areas in ways that will help reach all the end goals.

  • Communications
  • Costs
  • Human resources
  • Procurement
  • Quality of deliverables
  • Business requirements
  • Risks
  • Schedules
  • Project scope
  • Stakeholders

Consider project planning and its activities the starting and ending point of your project. All roads lead back to this phase, including your activities and final deliverables. Take the time to slow things down and plan all aspects of your project, including tasks, milestones, deliverables, costs, resources and all other possible considerations before diving into your project. This will help you avoid a considerable amount of stress during project execution as well as stakeholder disappointment at the time of delivery.

Also see:

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Image: iStock/NicoElNino

About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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