Planning your project

Being a manager doesn’t only mean dealing with people. It also means dealing with projects.

There are many great courses in project management, and if you are given the opportunity, go for further training, as there are many helpful strategies that you don’t know about yet.

This post is definitely not an in-depth study of project management, but should give you some pointers and guidelines in planning and project and bringing it to a successful conclusion.

At the end of the post you’ll find links to introductory and “serious” project management training and accreditation, some of it online, and some with at least some face-to-face components.

Creating a basic project plan

When you are given a project, there are a few simple things you need to know. Basically you need to know

  • what the project is about,
  • how long it should take,
  • who will do the work,
  • how much will it cost and
  • what and when you need to deliver.

It is a good idea to create a simple template of these questions for yourself, because an important aspect might be overlooked in the heat of the moment. When you are excited about a project, you might forget that some of your resources are already busy with other projects, or you might forget an important cost.

So, create a simple plan for yourself, that you can discuss with your own line manager (boss), and with all the stakeholders (including the people working on the project), and keep it up to date the whole time.

What is the project scope?

The project scope answers the big questions: how long will it take, how much will it cost and what will you have when you are finished.

Depending on the project it could also mean that you will do A, but not B, for instance: if you are asked to work out a marketing plan for the company, what exactly are you expected to do?

  • Must you work out a plan for all the products in detail, or just an overall plan with broad sections covering all products?
  • Do you have to create marketing materials, or just plan for the creation of these materials?
  • Do you have to do it for a specific region or province; for national or international marketing; for print or digital marketing?

You have to ask a whole lot of questions to make sure that you know in the end: THIS, and only this, and no more than this, is what is expected of me.

And you have to make sure that everyone agrees.

And you have to make sure that they don’t change their minds halfway through your project – if they want to add to the scope of the project, you have to call a meeting, and work out a new project plan, with new costs and new deadlines and new deliverables.

What are the project deliverables?

The project deliverables are basically what you want to get out of the project. A project is a bit like a meeting: you don’t just have one for the sake of having one. You have one because you want to get something out of it.

A deliverable could be a service or a product or both.

If you are setting up a marketing plan for the company, then your project deliverable would be a completed marketing plan that all stakeholders have agreed to. Within this marketing plan, you could have a service as a deliverable (for instance, that you must set up a client query hotline), or you could have a product as a deliverable (for instance, you must create marketing brochures for your company).

Make sure that you know what you are supposed to deliver. In this example it could be just the plan. Or it could include the actual marketing brochure and hotline. Only your own boss would be able to tell you this.

Use the ‘assignment-repeat-assignment’ procedure to make sure that you yourself have understood your assignment. In other words, let them tell you what your assignment is, and then ask them to listen carefully when you repeat your understanding of what they just said, back to them. Clarify anything that you misunderstood or that you’re not sure of.

If there are more parties involved in this project, they might not all have the same idea of what the project should deliver – therefore it is critical to speak to them all (at the same time, if possible) and to get them to sign off on what they expect of you.

What resources are available?

The word ‘resources’ could refer to anything that is used in order to complete a project plan. There are many things that resources could refer to, but in terms of project planning it is usually human resources (people) or financial resources (money), although resources could also include information, materials, time, etc.

Human resources

Human resources are critical to the completion of a project. A project would not succeed without people doing things.

The people you will need for a project could be people on your staff (e.g. the workers); it could also be specialists from outside (e.g. webmasters, designers, and technicians).

Choose people

When you plan a project you need to decide who would be needed to do the work.

You might immediately think of the names of some of your best workers. Although this is the instinctive approach, it is not always the best, because a specific person might not be available, or might become absent during the course of the project.

Rather connect the tasks that need to be done to the kinds of people you need to do them. In other words, don’t say that you need Mary – rather say that you need an accountant with 5 yrs experience in the marketing business.

Assign people

Once you have done this, by all means allocate the people best suited to the jobs to those jobs and discuss it with your boss.

You might find, however, that Mary would in fact not be ideal for the task you thought you wanted to give her, because she has no experience in marketing.

  • Then you have to decide: either arrange that Mary gets training in marketing (usually there will not be time to complete such training),
  • or that she gets the help of an expert to guide her in terms of the marketing aspects of her specific accounting task.
  • Or you could rather outsource this aspect of the job to an expert in the field. You might then have to pay a bit more, and would probably have to advertise to find such a person. You could, of course, also use your network of contacts to source such a person.

Shared human resources

If you use your own company’s workers, you will find that they are already working on projects and you will have to negotiate with management and with the various project leaders about using them on your project.

You cannot make this call – your own line manager will have to decide whether your project is important enough to put other projects on ice, or whether the workers should be shared resources, or whether it would be best to rather use outsourced people for your project so that the existing projects could still go ahead.

These are all strategic decisions – although you can give your input, you will not have a say in the final decision. Whatever management decides, you have to abide by, and work with.

Be very sure that you don’t take it personally and don’t break confidence by telling workers that you would have liked them to work on your project, but were prevented by management.

And especially don’t say anything if you think management made a poor decision – criticizing management is not just in poor taste, but also a sure way of making sure that you don’t get any  more promotions (in fact, don’t be too surprised if you get warned or demoted).

Strategies for sharing human resources

If you have shared resources, in other words, if the people working on your project also work on other projects, it is critical that you sit with all the project managers and work out a strategy.

  • Maybe the workers could work on your project in the mornings, and on theirs in the afternoons.
  • Maybe they could work on your project on specific days of the week.
  • Maybe they could be allocated a specific number of hours per week on each project.

Whatever you work out, remember that all projects need more intense working time just before deadline.

Communicate with shared human resources

Once you have drawn up a draft proposal, call a meeting with all the shared resources and all the relevant project managers. Now explain to the workers how they would have to divide their time, and ask them to comment.

It is important to get ownership from workers on your project, and this is a good way to handle it.

Explain to them why you came to certain decisions, and handle any comments. Prepare them for what is to come.

Sometimes workers come up with comments that send you and the other project managers back to the drawing board, but usually they will just have concerns and be generally unhappy about ‘being shunted around like this’.

Deal with their concerns and comments respectfully and in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

Let them know when the changeover will take place, and be ready to supply them with any paperwork they might need (for instance, they might have to keep a daily log on which project they are working at).

Sometimes problems arise only once the workers have started working according to your planning. Sometimes they are not happy, but are too timid to speak up on the spot.

Create channels for workers to comment on progress and on whether this plan works for them. You could ask them to give feedback to their different project managers by means of a mail, or a note on the manager’s desk.

In order to check on the real-life application of your plan, it is usually best to ask workers to work the plan exactly as you planned for a week, and then have another meeting with all the shared resources and all project managers to give feedback.

Financial resources

Financial resources are equally critical to a successful project plan. If you don’t have money, it will not be done.

If you want to make sure of financial resources, you will first have to break the project into milestones (specific objectives that you have to reach on a specific date) and then subdivide these into smaller action steps.

Look at detail

If you just create a broad budget, there might be huge expenses that you miss because you didn’t look at the detail of the project plan.

For instance, if you have to create all marketing brochures, you might simply phone a printer and ask them how much it would cost to print 5 000 brochures, and then add your graphic artist’ salary to this budget. You might then, when your artist has designed the brochures and want to deliver them to the printer, find that the printer needs it to be done in a specific software program. The cost of this might be a huge extra expense that you didn’t budget for.

Speak to everyone

If you therefore want to create a good budget, you have to sit with all the people involved and make sure

  • that they don’t assume that there is money for something, and
  • you don’t miss that cost because you didn’t ask.

The problem is that you cannot ask what you don’t know.

Budget collaboration

So you might have to ask them to create a budget (especially if the field is quite technical and you don’t have the expertise) and then you troubleshoot the budget with them.

If necessary, scare them a little (only a little!) by saying, repeatedly, ‘Are you sure there are no other costs that we should include? Remember, if you come to me at a later stage, you yourself will have to explain to Mr Big Boss where the extra costs are coming from.’

If you don’t scare them a little now, and make sure you get the information you need, you might have a huge scare waiting for everyone if unexpected costs arise at a critical time later in the project plan.

Multiple quotes and questions

When working with a budget, it is also necessary to try and get more than one quote and see that you use the best (which isn’t always the cheapest) supplier of a service or material.

Ask as many questions as you can think of, and don’t hesitate to ask outside suppliers or service providers for references so that you can see if they are the best fit for what you need.

To outsource or not?

Another sum you might have to make, is to compare using your own staff with using outsourced experts.

This is especially true if the project calls for a certain level of expertise, which your staff might not have.

In such a case you might still decide to invest in training your staff, as long as the training time and expense involved in training can fit into your project deadline.

Most often you will find that it would be best to at least have an expert mentor your staff, and to allocate time and money to make that happen.

Empowerment of people should always be part of a company’s core values, but not at the expense of product or service delivery. You can have both. You just need to plan carefully.

… links to further training

If you want to train further, whether online, face-to-face, free or paid, you can click on the links below to get an idea of what’s out there. Be warned, though, that project management certification’s expensive and challenging. You might want to start with some of the free online courses to upskill beforehand.

Blog posts and website articles:

The 10 Best Online Project Management Courses for Accidental Project Managers [Capterra]

17 Top Online Project Management Courses (Free & Paid) [Workzone]

Free Project Management Courses [Onlinestudyaustralia]

Project Management training and certification

Coursera: Project Management courses [Coursera]

edX: Project Management courses [edX]

Prince2 Courses and Certification for Project Management [Prince2] (select your country in the top bar)

PMI Online Courses [PMI]

Certifications [PMI]

About the author:

Lalien Cilliers

Lalien Cilliers. Project Manager. Content Development Manager. eLearning Developer & ICT Trainer [MIITP]. Website creator and social media pager. Helping others learn tough stuff the easy way. Eternally curious.  Author of:   9 things you should know … if you ever want to become a manager: The New Manager series and   A Guy’s Guide: New Home: How to Find and Furnish Your Own Place