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Planning your first project with Tom’s Planner

With Tom’s Planner you have found a great tool for creating project plans easily.

But how do you actually plan a project? How do you know what tasks to include and how long they are going to take?

If you’ve never planned a project before and need some quick help, this article is right for you. We’ll walk you through the entire process of planning a project.

Breaking your project down into manageable parts

For the first step all you need is a paper sheet or a blank spreadsheet.

You have to break down the big, abstract project goal into smaller chunks. These are the activities your team needs to complete in order to reach the project goal.

Begin with listing down those tasks.

Let’s say you’re in charge of a building a school.

You could break down the project into four general phases:

  • Design
  • Site selection
  • Construction
  • Interior design, furniture and equipment

This is still very broad and we couldn’t take action on such a high-level plan. We have to further break down each phase into tangible tasks. Here’s a more detailed view:

Design:

  • Building design
  • Interior layout

Site selection:

  • Create list of 3 possible sites
  • Soil evaluation

Construction:

  • Foundation
  • Framing
  • Walls
  • Roof

Interior design, furniture, and equipment:

  • Electrical wiring
  • Heating, ventilation, AC
  • Plumbing
  • Drywall
  • Furniture

Of course, we could get more granular, but let’s keep this example simple.

If you are not sure what steps to include in your project plan, then here’s what you can do: Do some research on Google to find similar project plans. You could google “software development project plan”. Also, Tom’s Planner has a template section where you can find ready-to-use templates for common project types.

In case you’re in charge of a large and complex project, you might want to create a work breakdown structure (WBS) first. A WBS is a visual, hierarchical model that shows all the parts a project has to deliver or take care of. Tacticalprojectmanager.com has a great article on how to create work breakdown structures in case you want to learn more about it.

Estimate task effort and duration

With your list of tasks ready, you now need to estimate the required effort for each activity.

For example, you want to know how many weeks the builder would take to create the foundation, build the framing and the walls. With this information only can you create a working time schedule for your project.

Estimating effort is one of the main challenges in project management. You will never be 100% accurate but you should get as close as possible.

Here are 3 ways to get good estimations:

  • Consult experts: your subject matter experts will know best how long they need for their work.
  • Look for reference projects: Talk to people who have done similar projects and ask them how much time they needed for each step.
  • Do the math: For tasks comprising of several blocks it may be helpful to make estimations on a sub-task level and then sum up to get the total effort: If it takes a builder 15 minutes to finish one square foot of the flooring, then for the entire 400 square foot floor it will take him 15 minutes x 400 = 6000 minutes = 10 hours to floor the entire room.

Note that estimation and duration are not the same: It may take a building company 10 days of effort to build the school building’s foundation. However, it will probably take more than two weeks to complete the work. Why? Some days the work will have to be suspended due to bad weather. Also, the company has other projects to serve. So the total duration will usually exceed the estimated effort.

Consider dependencies

The challenging part of projects is that every task is linked to other work. If one task gets delayed, subsequent tasks will face a delay as well. In your attempt to understand what tasks need to be performed, you should also get a feel for the dependencies.

Did you see any dependencies in our sample project?

Well, you obviously can’t set up any walls before the foundation is ready. So the foundation has to be before any other construction work.

Also, the electrical setup must come before the installation of air conditioning and heating systems.

Other activities can be scheduled in parallel. For example, the design work by the architect can be done at the same time when civil engineers inspect potential sites and carry out soil tests.

Backward and forward scheduling: which way is best for you?

One general point you need to decide upon is whether you want to plan your project backward or forward. Backward scheduling means the end date is given and you arrange one activity next to another in backward order. Forward scheduling means you start at some start date and you find out how long the project will take.

Add sufficient buffer

Planning a project is easy. Execution is the hard part, specifically keeping tasks on schedule. Very often, things don’t turn out the way they were planned. Common reasons are:

  • Work takes longer than expected
  • Technical issues pop up
  • Team members get sick
  • New requirements come up (taking up extra time to implement)

The result: Your meticulously planned timeline will break apart – unless you have planned insufficient buffer. An extra day here and there to balance unexpected delays (e.g. due to bad weather in a construction project).

Creating the project plan with Tom’s Planner

Now it’s time to create the actual Gantt chart for our project. Take your list of project activities and open a new sheet in Tom’s Planner.

Step 1: Prepare your timeline

First, we’ll enable the weekly view because we’ll be scheduling work on a per-week basis instead of daily. This has the advantage that we don’t have to modify our plan if tasks get shifted from one day to another.

Step 2: Enter the project phases

Next, let’s enter the project phases. All you have to do is click on the orange bars and enter the phase name. The result should look like this:

Step 3: Enter the project activities

The following step is to enter the project activities, which have to be assigned to the right phase. Here’s what you should see:

Step 4: Draw the activity bars

So far we haven’t visualized the project yet. That is what we’ll do now. For each activity, we will draw a bar that represents the activities duration. Before you draw the bars you have to scroll the time view to the right period.

In our example, we’ll just do forward planning, which means we start from today’s date and schedule activities one after another.

This is what our project plan now looks like:

We have added buffer between some of the activities

Step 5: Give your plan the final touch

You might want to check out these two features to make your schedule perfect.

Add milestones
Milestones are useful to highlight major accomplishments in your project. With Tom’s Planner you can enter milestones either by adding a colored (e.g. red) time block or by adding an icon from the library:

Adding a milestone as time block:

Adding a milestone as icon:

Apply different colors
You can select different colors for each taskbar. This way you can visually separate tasks that are of a different type. For example, you could have design-related activities as blue, construction work as brown and interior work as violet. Take a look at the following Gantt chart. Isn’t it more easy to understand?

Include dependencies

Another useful feature of Tom’s Planner is the possibility to add dependencies. This means you link those bars (activities) which are dependent on each other. Just right-click on one bar you want to connect and draw a connector to the subsequent activity:

This way both activities will be connected with each other, and you can move them forward or backward while maintaining the desired sequence.

Now you have created your first project schedule. Congratulations!

Finally, we want to share a few more tips on project scheduling.

Scheduling considerations

When scheduling project work on the timeline there are a couple of things you should keep in mind:

  • Availability of resources: This is obvious. You can’t schedule work on a day or week where your team member in charge is on holiday or busy with other work. Same goes for resources like machines or tools that may not be available every day.
  • Bank holidays: As much as we enjoy bank holidays, they can really complicate project planning. An activity that would normally be completed in 5 work days may have to be spread across two weeks just because of a bank holiday in between.
  • Events on the corporate calendar: Every company has its own calendar with company-specific events. These can be trade shows, business forecasting workshops but also recurring activities like monthly closing in accounting. Some of your activities may conflict with these events, so it’s better to check your company’s calendar and plan your activities around company-specific events.

Finally: share your plan and get feedback

Once your project schedule is finished, we recommend you share it with your team. Not just to let people know when work will happen but also to get feedback. Your team members may spot a scheduling conflict that you did not see while creating the plan. It’s better to detect planning issues early on than later in the project when you are already in implementation mode.

To share your plan within your team, you can use the sharing function in Tom’s Planner. You’ll find it in the toolbar at the top:

Click on invite others:

Next, enter the email addresses of the team members you want the share the plan with. Using read-only mode is the right option when you don’t want anyone else to carry out modifications:

Click on send invitation and your colleagues will receive a link via email where they can access the project plan from.

We hope this tutorial has been helpful for you and wish you much success with your project! Thank you for using Tom’s Planner.

This article is written by Adrian Neumeyer from tacticalprojectmanager.com. If you have some spare time take a look at the rest of his blog. It’s good. He has hands-on advice and is really down to earth, just like Tom’s Planner.

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