My background is in software development, a field infamous for delivering the vast majority of its projects over budget. This problem is not limited to just software projects; in fact, most projects are delivered late and over budget. Why does this happen?
The answer is simple: poor project planning.
So how can you ensure that your projects, both personal and business are delivered on time and on budget? How do you learn to anticipate the obstacles, identify the exact goals, and plan for success?
Well, here are 7 simple steps I take to help properly plan my projects. Which have you tried, which do you use, and what can you improve upon?
- Organize your thoughts
You have a general idea for a project, but you’re unsure about the specifics. Organize your thoughts and expand your idea to include the details. I use mind maps to organize and expand my ideas because they make it easy for me to share my thoughts with others and because they are a highly flexible organizational tool.
- Define clear objectives
This sounds obvious, but there are a large number of people who get an idea and sit down and start working on a project without a clear idea of what they actually want to accomplish.
“Making a better accounting system” is not a clear objective; what does that even mean?
Develop specific, measurable objectives instead, such as “develop an accounting system which will automate payroll and reduce our payroll processing overhead by 30%.” Your project won’t have a prayer of being successful or on budget if you don’t have clear, measurable expectations and goals.
- Do your homework
You might think you’re the first person to come up with a solution to a specific problem, but are you sure? Is there an existing solution which might suit your needs? Are there some components of your project that can be replaced with cheap, off-the-shelf solutions?
Find answers to these questions before you do anything. If you’re designing a new car, don’t start by reinventing the wheel; incorporate existing solutions into your project where applicable.
- Build a clear execution plan
Before you begin working on your project, you need to determine how you’re going to execute your project. Where do you begin? Do you set goals first? Build a team first? Or budget the project first? Figure it out and get a clear idea of when each phase of your project needs to begin. You start building a house by designing it on paper first, not laying a foundation.
Determine each of the steps in your build process and then establish clear deliverables that must be produced before you proceed from one step to another. I use mind maps and Gantt charts to decompose my projects into smaller, more manageable deliverables; I also find that Gantt charts are quite helpful for scheduling my projects in addition to helping me budget them.
- Establish clear, material deliverables for each step
Each project should be broken down into deliverables or milestones. Each step in the execution plan for your project should consist of one or more major deliverables to be produced after a reasonable amount of time.
Think of a golf game as a project – rather than try to win the entire game at once, golfers break down the game into 18 holes and break each hole down into a number of strokes. Each hole is a step in the project and each stroke is a deliverable. Tiger Woods doesn’t play each of his strokes thinking about how his current stroke might affect his overall score – he concentrates on making his current stoke the best stroke possible.
When you go about planning your project, you should establish a number of clear, material deliverables for each step. “Complete project research” is not a clear deliverable – its intangible, meaningless fluff. A clear, material deliverable is “produce a report detailing the competitive environment for our target market.”
- Break down the time required of each deliverable
Once you break down your project into specific deliverables, the process of budgeting and scheduling a project becomes much easier; the deliverables in your project are small enough to measure accurately. Establish your project’s budget by summing up the time and money to produce each deliverable.
- Make room for errors
The most important and easiest step in making sure that your project doesn’t go over budget is budgeting room for error! It’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong with a project; something may take longer than expected, your computer might crash, or you might have to wait on a third party, and so forth.
It’s better to give yourself some wiggle room ahead of time than to apologize to your boss later for going over budget. Identify key areas of your project that are particularly vulnerable to error and make a reasonable assessment for how much extra time and money you are going to need in case an error occurs. Once you’ve done that, simply factor the amount into your budget.
There are millions of articles about managing better projects, but in my experience I’ve found that these seven simple steps offer the best ROI.
If you have other opinions about basic project management concepts then feel free to leave comments below.