Planning is key to project management success

We’ve all heard the old adage ‘measure twice, cut once.’ While it might be a cliché, in the project management world it takes on a critical meaning: Choosing to rush through or ignore the project planning process can be a formula for failure.

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Pick any major event, trip or undertaking in your life and think about the time, energy and work put into making sure everything went off without a hitch. Then think about the stress and aggravation you experienced those times when things didn’t go as planned.

As a discipline, project management works the same way, except on a greater scale and involving many stakeholders and a larger pool of resources. It can include external vendors, several other internal and intra-departmental team members (as well as their schedules and input), additional parameters like cost, quality, timing, constant coordination, communication and associated risks.

Imagine the consequences of poor project planning if any one of these things is not handled correctly. All of the above factors and many others have an impact on — and are in turn affected by — the project planning aspect of project management.

How does poor project planning produce potential problems?

Lack of strategic alignment. In “How to align projects management with your business strategy,” I outlined the benefits and risks associated with project management and the need to consider an enterprise project management office (EPMO) to ensure projects are consistently aligned with business objectives.

When it comes to planning and initiation, “EPMO participation is critical in companywide planning sessions in order to transform the traditional PMOs into high-performing teams that deliver significant value. This will also help to establish a shared vision.” According to PMI research, the success rates of higher-performing PMOs also align with a company’s financial performance.

Cost, quality and time constraint issues and scope creep. Determining the scope of a project is difficult without spending a considerable amount of upfront time properly planning. Gathering requirements, developing comprehensive project management plans, and determining and scheduling activities among other things, require considerable thought, coordination and yes, a lot of time.

Without planning activities, these key project elements can lead to lack of stakeholder commitment and resources because poor planning does not instill confidence or credibility. In turn, this has the potential to discourage stakeholders from proceeding with the project manager or even with a project altogether. Strong project leaders instill confidence by keeping on top of project planning activities and therefore, remove the need for costly, time-consuming rework and increase success ratios throughout projects companywide. 

Inefficient use of resources. Estimating costs and activity levels, scheduling resources, and continually monitoring and adjusting them requires intense planning to ensure a project is moving in the right direction. Effective planning identifies the tools and techniques required to accomplish these tasks and reduces the risk of having unclear roles and responsibilities. Resources, whether financial or human are usually limited these days and of high value to any business, so if squandered unnecessarily, it has the potential to be disastrous. Given the consequences, this is an area where companies should carefully plan how, when and where to employ limited resources to best maximize effectiveness. 

Communication Issues. In “11 Communication Skills of Effective Project Leaders,” trustworthiness, transparency, focus and stability, objectivity and fairness, confidence, leading by example, energy and motivation, consistency and flexibility, accessibility, clarity, and respect are underscored as essential communication characteristics. It takes considerable thought and careful planning to ensure communication plans take into account stakeholders needs; without these there is potential for communication barriers which can translate into reduced confidence and jeopardize buy-in from team members and stakeholders. 

Increased Risk. Identifying risks and performing qualitative and quantitative risk analysis and developing risk management strategies are key to successful project outcomes. These activities can require a lot of time and considerable coordination to complete because they can range from simple to sophisticated and complex depending on project, scope, size, and a range of other factors. The more risk points or the greater the consequences, the more planning is required. 

Project planning is not a guarantee that projects will go according to plans. In fact, despite all of the planning that may surround a project, uncertainty is always there, lurking in the background waiting to jump in and disrupt those plans. The key to having great project outcomes is to first recognize from the project’s inception why careful project planning is a critical component to reducing risks and increasing success. It may seem more time consuming up front, but will save substantial undue stress, time and costly rework later.

Project planning with precision can be an iterative process, but it’s worth it to measure twice and cut once, when compared to the risks associated with poor planning. The important point here is to remember that planning is vital to reducing project risks, which in turn increases the likelihood of a successful project.

We started with one cliché, we can end with another, this time courtesy of Ben Franklin: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

This story, "Planning is key to project management success" was originally published by CIO.