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What's a reasonable amount of time to devote to planning a project? I use this rule of thumb: If it is a low-uncertainty project (i.e., we've completed another with similar conditions in the past, with known technology and firm assumptions), devote at least 10 percent of the expected duration of the project to planning it. If it's perceived as a high-uncertainty project (i.e., one with new technology, new approach, uncertain conditions), devote at least 20 percent.
But let's face it. Often, organizational pressure will not allow us to devote that much time to planning. So is there an approach that lets us reduce planning time but still do good work and come up with a complete, useful plan?
Many organizations I've worked with use a project planning acceleration workshop (PPAW). This is an organized, closed-door, multiday session with the whole project team to focus exclusively on producing the project plan -- something that usually takes several weeks, completed in a few days' time. There are different ways of organizing such an event, but I usually follow these seven steps:
1. Plan the plan. Share with team members all of the project's background information. Send invitations with enough lead time and clearly state the session's sole objective, which is to produce a solid project plan. I often kick off the session stating that once we are finished, we will have a project plan that is roughly 75 to 85 percent complete -- and that we are going to accomplish this in a very short period of time. Therefore, total commitment is required from all participants.
2. Set the stage. What you want is an environment conducive to teamwork without distractions. Secure a room to host the workshop, preferably outside of the office. And don't forget to include a lot of food and beverages for the duration of the workshop. When people are tired, food helps!
3. Define the agenda. Depending on the complexity of the project, different workshop durations will be required, but three days is adequate for most projects. I often use an agenda that looks like this:
First day: Devote the morning only to the human elements of the project -- for example, for introductions and team integration activities. It'll set the stage for the rest of the workshop. In the afternoon, analyze the project background and produce a thorough project charter that includes scope statement, time and cost constraints, major deliverables, key stakeholders, expected benefits, restrictions and assumptions.
Second day: In the morning, develop the work breakdown structure (WBS). Make the whole team work on defining the major deliverables and then break into smaller groups to further decompose these major deliverables. Produce the project's schedule in the afternoon.
Third day: The planning elements needed for your project might vary, but I usually devote this day to producing the budget, a roles and responsibilities matrix (mapping the team members to work packages on the WBS), a key resources plan and a risk management plan.
4. Use collaborative working techniques. Don't just project steps on a screen; make team members work together. When producing the WBS or the project schedule, use the participatory cards on the wall (COW) technique. For the risk management plan, brainstorm together to identify risks and ask participants to pin different risks on color-coded charts according to their assessment of probability and impact.
5. Document everything. Assign someone in the team to document everything produced. You may use Post-its to draft the WBS or the schedule, but these elements need to be recorded formally for when the project starts.
6. Assign tasks for completion. After the workshop is finished, the project plan won't be completely finalized. Usually certain parts need more research or analysis. Assign specific team members to complete outstanding pieces and establish a deadline for completing these elements that were initiated at the PPAW.
7. Kick off the project. Once the project plan is deemed completed, host one more session to make a final review of all the elements, especially those that needed further research. Combine this activity with a formal project kick-off meeting -- the end of PPAW and the beginning of your project.
In my experience, when a team is co-located and completely focused for a specific period of time to create a plan, it yields better results.
Have you ever run a PPAW? How has it improved your project?