Tips and Tricks for Smart Project Planning

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In my previous post on critical path, I promised to share some tips and tricks that can help you make your project planning more efficient. So here they are:
Pay close attention to the human factor. Critical path analysis and project management tools can be really helpful in administering and managing projects. The dependencies that you put on your project are usually fairly easy to grasp. Thus, the formal critical path for small projects is often obvious enough for project managers and for project management software. Project management tools are helpful in the visualization of the schedule, and in quick calculation of an approximate end date when there are estimates in place. However, they are not a substitute for the "human factor." Experienced project managers know that tools are important, but they always remember that they are dealing with human beings when planning project tasks, deadlines, milestones and implementation dates. This human factor should be taken into consideration when creating your project schedule.

I already mentioned the “resource critical path” method earlier in the post series. Another method that can complement your use of the critical path method and help you deal with resource constraints is called the critical chain. The Critical Chain Method (CCM) is a way of planning and managing projects that puts the main emphasis on the resources required to execute project tasks. A critical chain tends to keep the resources levelly loaded, but it requires them to be flexible in their start times and to quickly switch between tasks and task chains to keep the whole project on schedule. Dependencies used to determine the critical chain include both logical, hands-off dependencies (where the output of the predecessor task is required to start the successor) and resource dependencies (where a task has to wait for a resource to finish work on another task). The identification of the critical chain uses a network of tasks with "aggressive but achievable" estimates that is first "resource leveled" against a finite set of resources.

Involve your team in the planning process. The people doing the work should be actively involved in scheduling.  They're motivated to get it right. They have the skills to understand the dependencies, and they need to accept the schedule. It also is helpful to involve your stakeholders and clients. They can provide you with valuable insights on when they need the project to be completed, etc.

When choosing project management software to build your project plan and your critical path, keep in mind that the application should give your team members and clients an opportunity to contribute to the plan.  It also is important to continue team involvement throughout the project lifecycle.  Constant communications with your team will provide valuable information on bottlenecks, leaves of absence (planned or unplanned), and other issues that may arise during the project that may impact the critical path and overall project schedule.

Iterate your plan. With the traditional approach, tasks usually should be completed one after another in an orderly sequence, so that a significant part of the project or even the whole project should be planned upfront. Traditional project management practices are geared toward assumptions that events affecting the project are predictable and that activities are well-understood. In addition, once a phase is complete, it often is assumed that the phase will not be revisited. Very often, this approach proves to be not very effective, taking into consideration the level of uncertainty on many business projects.

Iterative planning is an approach borrowed from agile project management. The agile approach consists of many rapid, iterative planning and development cycles, allowing a project team to constantly evaluate the evolving product and obtain immediate feedback from customers or stakeholders. The team learns and improves its working methods during each successive cycle. After a streamlined planning and requirements definition phase is completed to get the project underway, iterations of more detailed planning and requirements take place in waves. So for example, it can be helpful to organize your plans into time-bound iterations, usually two to four weeks in length. During those iterations, you and your team focus only on one part of your project and do everything to take this part from an idea to a reality. This approach allows for immediate modifications in the project as requirements come into view.

With iterative planning, portions of the project are delivered on a regular, frequent basis. This gives stakeholders a much better idea of the status of the project because they can see and may be even use the end result of each phase as it becomes available. Iterations make your schedule more realistic and allow you to better ensure your project’s success, as well as its delivery on time and on budget. Even with more traditional waterfall projects, opportunities to break down deliverables into stages can provide iterative benefits to the stakeholders and reduce overall project delivery risk.

Move tasks that involve risks closer to the start of your project. All projects have activities with potential risks that can lead to problems or delays. Some of these can be averted or reduced through advanced planning. This is always a better approach and carries a greater chance of project success, compared to relying on crisis management. Identify the most risky tasks on your project. These will need your special attention.  If you manage to complete them earlier, you’ll be able to ensure your project’s success earlier. Therefore, putting these tasks closer to the beginning of your critical path, if this is possible, is highly recommended.

When your critical path is delayed, you need to check the plan and see whether there are any tasks that can be completed a little earlier. It’s also often a good idea to communicate it clearly to stakeholders that your project may be delayed, along with reasons for the original deferral and the actions you’ll take to compensate for it. If the delay is unavoidable, you have to make a decision and consult with stakeholders about whether to deliver later than the due date or to reduce the scope of the work to be on time. This will change your initial critical path.

Leverage technology to save time and make your project planning more efficient.  If your projects have parallel activities, doing the scheduling calculations for the critical path method is quite laborious and feels like using pen and paper, instead of calculators, to do math, especially if you consider the fact that frequent updates to the schedule will force you to recalculate things. For large and complex projects, there’ll be thousands of activities and dependency relationships that need to be up-to-date. Fortunately, there is relatively inexpensive, Web-based project management software that can handle this with ease on the “pay as you go” basis.

Project management applications, like desktop-based Microsoft Project or Web-based, will help you visualize your project schedule in the form of a Gantt chart and draw dependencies between your tasks. Such a tool will automatically calculate your project’s end date, as well as the length of your project. The tools also will help you identify the tasks that will not be on the critical path. Additionally, some of these software applications will allow you to easily reschedule your tasks as your project develops. You’ll be able to put the tasks on the path and take them off it easily. You’ll also be able to move whole task chains on the chart, according to your real project conditions. The Gantt chart you’ve seen above is an approximate schedule for our sample project created in an online tool,

Web-based tools focused on collaboration can be more useful when you work on a team. They allow your team members to update the schedule, making it realistic. This way, you immediately see the progress and changes on your project, without having to pull the information from your team members and put it into the project plan manually by yourself. You also may get the benefit of more realistic time estimates for future projects as the people who are doing the work are updating the tasks themselves, instead of relying on a project manager to estimate work and record actual completion dates.

I hope you find these tips useful. Do you have your own tips and tricks on how to make project planning more efficient? Please post them in the comments!

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