Why Plan? Project Planning Part 2 by Martin Webster

In my last post – Why Plan | Project Planning, part 1 – I explained how project planning helps us to predict and prepare for difficulties.

To recap, project planning is an essential management activity that provides everyone involved in a project with information – understanding – on:
  • What is required
  • How it is done
  • Who does what
  • When things will happen
When starting a project we tend to think about it in terms of a journey: going on a quest or walking in the fog. Whilst this analogy is useful in helping us to understand the type of project we’re starting we should not dwell on the journey. Planning is about the destination – what the project will deliver. Therefore, we have much to gain if we focus on the products that must be produced.

Planning is essential regardless of the size or type of project. Let’s turn planning on its head for a moment!

As I’ve already said, the project plan comprises cost and resources plans plus a schedule plan or Gantt chart. However, this does not mean we start assigning tasks or activities to people by diving up the available time. No! Effective planning begins with an understanding of project scope.

Accordingly, we first describe the quality of the products the project must deliver. Products are simply milestones or deliverables that contribute to the success of the project. In contrast, activities consume time and effort that should contribute to delivering specific products and, ultimately business benefits.

Examples products could include:

  • A business case
  • An invitation to tender
  • A test strategy
  • The contract
  • Trained users
  • A test plan
The product-based planning technique – defined in the PRINCE2 handbook – makes it easier to estimate effort, resources and time needed to deliver the project. Moreover, product based planning puts quality at the heart of planning because each completely and unambiguously defined. Planning is essential regardless of the size or type of project. The rest of this article demonstrates how product based planning is performed by starting with the product breakdown structure.

The product flow diagram and product description shall be covered in the last part of this series. The Product Breakdown Structure The product breakdown structure defines and documents project scope: everything the project will produce to meet its objective. The product breakdown structure – or PBS – is a simple hierarchical tree diagram.

Whilst there are many ways to prepare a PBS I shall describe the approach that works for me: a team activity which brings together the project team in a facilitated workshop. This allows the project manager to personally contribute to the planning process. Moreover, make it interactive and get everyone involved! If you read my blog (Martin Webster, Esq.) you’ll learn that I encourage participation and often make use of Post-It notes and flip charts. But remember this; it is the responsibility of the project manager (or facilitator) to keep people focused on project outputs not inputs.

Let’s start with a simple example: organizing and delivering a successful event.

The first product describes what the project intends to achieve in its entirety. This is the starting point of the PBS. Make this absolutely clear. Remember it’s all about the destination! So what is needed to deliver a successful event? Ask your audience. Encourage participation and let ideas to flow freely. Allow people to write anything that comes to mind on a Post-It note. This will include physical functional and conceptual products. But limit this activity to 5 or 10 minutes, depending on the size and complexity of the project. You’ll end up with lots of ideas. Many will cover the same topic. Others will be unique.

My guess is that some of the following key components will be identified:

  • Administration
  • Promotion
  • Financial
  • Logistics
  • Registration
  • Speakers
  • Sponsors
Next, group the Post-It notes into similar product categories. Don’t worry if they aren’t clearly defined products or outputs at this stage. Now agree the component parts of the project and place these on a separate flip chart. In the example we have the beginnings of a product breakdown structure.

Initial PBS

Continue breaking down the products into more detail. Once again, limit the amount of time to 5 or 10 minutes for each iteration. Also, as you decompose the project into its constituent parts you will begin to notice that some products are redundant because they are better described by those that come later. For instance, promotion is better defined as an advertising campaign and marketing products.

Product Breakdown Structure

Likewise, you will eventually find it difficult to subdivide further. If that’s the case, stop where you are. The job is done. What started as a single description of the project is now a more compete list of the parts that describe the project. Document this information and use it to create the product flow diagram and project descriptions. Thanks for reading.

***** Martin Webster is Solution Design and Commissioning Manager at Leicestershire County Council. He has over ten years project and programme management experience. Martin regularly writes on leadership, business change and project management topics. Read more at Martin Webster, Esq.

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