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Winston Churchill once said, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” This paradox is especially true in project management. Circumstance causes frequent departure from plans, and yet planning remains an invaluable asset, serving as a roadmap for the project and a baseline for measuring end-results.

But the truth is, a lot of businesses struggle with project planning, with predictable results. According to the Project Management Institute, only nine percent of businesses rate themselves as excellent at executing initiatives to deliver strategic results, and 44 percent of strategic initiatives fail to meet their original business goals. Worldwide, this costs organizations an estimated $109 million per one billion invested in projects.

So how do you make a project plan that will actually work (i.e. successfully accomplish business objectives on time and under budget)? There’s no one-size-fits all answer, but there are a number of attributes that effective plans usually have in common. Below are the top five. 

Effective Project Plans...

1.     Use the right methodology

There are a number of different project management frameworks that suit different industries and project types, but most fall under the two reigning methodologies: Agile and Waterfall. Waterfall is the more traditional approach where project tasks and objectives are passed down from the top through a hierarchy, and the project plan provides a detailed agenda of the steps required to get from the drawing board to finished project. This top-down, predictive planning is usually best suited for projects with larger scope, repeatable workflows, and fixed requirements.

 

Agile methodology emphasizes a more bottom-up, collaborative process which includes reactive planning, and working in short, time-boxed increments. The flexibility of agile project management makes it a good fit for product-focused teams whose work is constantly subject to changing customer requirements, such as software and technology development. Roughly 76 percent of developers are using or plan to use an Agile project management tool. In the past several years, other project-focused industries have also taken an interest in Agile planning, from construction to human resources to marketing.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these methodologies, and more often than not, the best approach involves a balance between the two—a balance between strategy (top-down planning) and tactics (bottom-up planning).

2.     Use the Best Project Management Software

That doesn’t mean the most expensive system on the market—just the one that’s best suited for its anticipated use. Project management software can range from lighter, web-based tools for small teams, to scrum-based systems for software developers, to enterprise project and portfolio management (PPM) for large companies with simultaneous projects. 

In any case, a software tool can help your team share assets, measure progress and ROI, build repeatable workflows, report on key metrics, and collaborate between locations and departments.

3.     Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Since most projects require collaboration between diverse groups of stakeholders, it’s important to keep everyone on the same page about goals, progress, and requirements. In a waterfall PM ecosystem, this will usually mean passing down memos from upper management or sending out weekly recap emails. In Agile, it could entail daily “stand-up” meetings where teams update each other throughout a sprint, or setting up an internal feedback loop using project management software.

One example of this is the enterprise social network, which is now being incorporated into many core business systems for project management, CRM, and HR. Gartner predicts that 50 percent of large organizations will have internal social networks by next year. This hive of intelligence (from databases, audit trails, and communication platforms) is sometimes referred to as knowledge management.

4.     Stay Flexible

Project managers from the more traditional camp tend to over-emphasize predictive planning. It’s good to set goals and milestones for the future, and even to create a work-breakdown-structure (WBS) to help you map out labor and schedule allocations, but it is possible to over-plan.

You might be over-planning if you’re trying to anticipate resource requirements and budget adjustments down to the granular level at every turn, or if you’re building intricate reverse timelines with the precision and neurosis of a wedding-planner. This fixation with control will probably be thwarted during week one, when the budget changes, or customer demands change, or your team structure, asset availability, and so on.

5.     Match Talent with Tasks

This is a pretty basic tenet of resource allocation: treat your team members’ skill sets as resources that should be assigned to the most appropriate project responsibilities. But many project managers get so wrapped up in strategy and timelines that they mistakenly treat people as interchangeable parts. If you want your team members to be personally invested in their portion of the work, you need to acknowledge and exploit their areas of expertise. According to a recent study by Baseline magazine, companies that “align talent planning [with] business objectives” have 14 percent higher project success rates. 

Conclusion

Projects vary by industry, complexity, and scope, so there’s no single recipe for successful project management. But if there were, it would be equal parts strategy, tactics, and collaboration, combined with a flexible program. It would create project plans with just enough foresight, and just enough adaptability—in other words, a recipe for a recipe. 

About the Author

Aleksandr Peterson is a technology analyst at TechnologyAdvice. He covers gamification, CRMs, project management, and other emerging business technology. Connect with him on LinkedIn.