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A Small Business Guide to Project Planning

SProject planning is not about tools or methodologies, it’s about people. This is as true for a small business as it is for an enterprise. Yes, good modern tools can take the tedium out of updating progress and spotting overloads. It’s also true that running a project without a methodology is horrendous – like learning to ski on your way down Mont Blanc.

The tools and methodologies, however, are all designed to communicate and manage with the people you need to get on board if you are to deliver the project. As a project manager it’s your job to get the right people on-side, or face the prospect of the project not succeeding. Cooperative stakeholders and a well-briefed, committed team will help to get the project around the obstacles and down the tricky slopes.

Here we take a look at setting up a project in a small business; the essential steps needed regardless as to which tools and methodologies are being used.

First, however, we need to consider methodologies; these project management techniques have evolved to support their related industries. Agile and Scrum are tuned for software development, and are still evolving. Critical Path is used in construction to manage interdependent activities. Six Sigma is used in manufacturing to measure and eliminate defects. PRINCE2 is the most highly regarded methodology and is used across all industries. It is the only established methodology that is also a globally recognised project management qualification as well.

Using an established methodology will give a shape and structure to the project and will help to communicate with the people involved. Team members and stakeholders will understand what the project is trying to achieve and will see how they fit in.

Project Scope

Winning a project is a great feeling for the salesperson and consultants who land it. In the euphoria, they can overlook the detail of what was promised to the customer in the negotiations and agreed internally. There will be contract documents, but these need to be reinforced by examining precisely what agreements were made.

Defining scope means understanding what major deliverables are being promised and their specific deadlines. It means firming up commitments for team members and their availability. Finally, it means putting the project on a realistic footing; the scope must be deliverable against the deadlines with the resources available.

At a time when senior management is asking when the project can start and team members are itching to work, it can be frustrating to have to dig through meeting notes and sales call logs. It needs to be done, however. Thorough research at this stage will pay for itself later.

The scope will need to define:

An early meeting with the customer representative will give the opportunity to understand their expectations, especially regarding communication on the project:

  • Will they review specifications and can work proceed without approval?
  • What regular reporting is needed?
  • What is the business reason for the agreed deadline?
  • Are there other representatives from the customer side and how will they be involved?
  • How will the project be signed off?

Outline Project Plan

At this stage, it’s important to draft an outline project plan, one that can be shared with team members, stakeholders and internal management. This outline plan should define:

  • Deliverables and a high-level breakdown of the tasks
  • Deadlines
  • Ball-park estimates for the tasks
  • Skill profiles for the team
  • Assumptions, especially on resource availability
  • Customer involvement – approvals, testing, sign-off

Team involvement

Now that the project has a shape, it’s vital to get input from the team; these are the people who will do the work. Getting understanding and buy-in at this stage will secure their commitment later. It also means listening to their concerns about estimates, conflicting work, technology and other areas. It’s good to challenge assumptions.

Stakeholder involvement

It’s also essential to get input and agreement from the stakeholders. There may be omissions in the plan that need to be addressed and the stakeholders may need to compromise on what is achievable. Again, it’s good to challenge assumptions and far better to negotiate on scope at this stage than once the project is running.

Detailed project plan

The outline plan needs to be put into a format against which the team can deliver tasks. This means itemising the work breakdown structure into individual tasks, each with a realistic estimate and a resource type. Often a tool such as a Gantt chart is used to collate the tasks and their dependencies.

Using sections for deliverables and showing milestone dates will make the plan more readable. As well as the team, stakeholders will also need to read the plan and see when and how they will be involved.

Execute the project

With the stakeholders on-side, a committed team and a detailed project plan, the project is ready to start. The effort that went into questioning the salesperson, negotiating with stakeholders and listing to the team will give the project a good chance of success.