Being prepared and planning ahead are tactics that can lead to success. A championship-caliber football team kicks off every game with a playbook ready to hand. A victorious army will predictably head into combat with a battle strategy in place.
In the same vein, professional teams should start a project with a detailed plan and a fleshed-out schedule ready to go. If you’re a project leader, here are the five steps required to ensure that your team is organized, oriented, and focused from the moment each undertaking begins.
Step 1: Establish Project Goals
The first step in establishing a plan is to set up clearly defined project goals. The objective when setting goals shouldn’t simply be to state a generic endpoint or an obviously desired outcome.
For instance, if a marketer wants to increase sales, they can’t simply state that they must generate “more revenue.” A goal of this nature is vague and lacks purpose. Instead, specific benchmarks should be set up, such as “increasing sales by 12% in quarter 2” or “increasing brand awareness through a concerted SEO and social media marketing campaign.” This gives the team definitive endpoints that they can work toward as they go along.
For most projects, the process of establishing an end goal should roughly adhere to the following formula:
- Identify the stakeholders of the project: Who is impacted (directly or indirectly) by or has a vested interest in the project? Stakeholders for a project could be an end-user, a project sponsor, or even the project manager and the team itself.
- Delineate the needs of the stakeholders: Once you’ve identified the stakeholders, take the time to thoroughly understand what they consider the endpoint of the project to be. Ensure that potential project timelines and results are understood by the project managers and that they consist of reasonable expectations for the project itself.
- Prioritize stakeholder goals: Some goals will be obvious, like a contractor understanding that a homeowner wants a new living room. Other goals will require an interview or questions to properly understand and may even be less important, such as the homeowner wanting a rustic hearth over the fireplace if it fits into the budget. Take the time to prioritize the goals of the project right from the beginning.
- Set SMART benchmarks for each goal: Finally, make sure to establish SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based) expectations for how you can track and accomplish each goal.
It’s essential that you take the time to identify the true stakeholders of a project right from its inception. This allows you to set clear, SMART goals that can keep your team on track and avoid unnecessary mistakes along the way.
Setting goals is the most critical piece of the planning puzzle. It establishes the framework within which the rest of the planning can then take place.
Step 2: Designate Roles and Responsibilities
Once you’ve identified and established goals for your project, you must decide who on your team will be in charge of accomplishing each one. This is a two-step process:
First, you must decipher what responsibilities must be addressed in order for your project to succeed. For example, if a contractor is going to remodel a house, they must purchase supplies, gather equipment, sign necessary permits and paperwork, make sure that bond insurance is in place, and so on.
Second, once you’ve figured out what responsibilities are necessary to complete the project, you must assign these to various designated roles. If you’re a small business, you may need to take on many of the responsibilities yourself. If you’re a larger operation, you may have a larger team available within which you can divvy out the duties.
Step 3: Create a Timeline
The next step is often misconstrued for the entire business planning process: scheduling. While there’s much more to creating an airtight plan than figuring out when it will take place, though, the work of scheduling out a timeline for your project is still a crucial part of the process. When creating your project schedule, make sure to consider every factor that can impact the timeline, such as:
- The need to create blueprints, make purchase orders, and wait for supplies to be delivered.
- Submitting bids and waiting for responses and approvals.
- Meeting deadlines and benchmarks throughout the project.
A timeline should always conservatively include each and every step in the process and should build in a way to renegotiate deadlines, should a delivery be missed or other delays occur.
Project Timeline Example
If a plumber is creating a project timeline for a kitchen renovation, the proposed schedule might look something like:
- Create and submit a bid and then wait for feedback and approval during the first week.
- Obtain necessary permits and have supplies delivered by the end of the second week.
- Begin the project by the beginning of the third week.
- Have original plumbing removed by the second day of the third week.
- Install new plumbing fixtures by the end of the third week.
By planning out each phase of the project, the plumber remains well aware of everything that must be done and in what order it should be executed.
Step 4: Analyze Project Quality and Potential Risks
The tasks of maintaining quality assurance and mitigating risks are not just meant for during the project itself. They should factor heavily into the planning stage as well.
Project quality can be addressed by analyzing the plan once both goals and a schedule are in place. Compare final plans to stakeholder expectations and ensure that quality can be maintained within the current timeline.
The potential for risk should also be considered at this late stage in the process, such as:
- Overly-optimistic cost and time estimates.
- Delays in receiving supplies.
- A lack of stakeholder interest or communication.
- A failure to properly understand or delegate responsibilities.
By pinpointing potential concerns, you can prepare both management and team members for the possibility that they may arise at some point as you go along. They also can help you put safeguards in place, such as a contractor utilizing liability insurance and bonds in the event of unexpected setbacks or challenges.
Step 5: Finalize Plan and Begin the Project
Once you have risks analyzed, quality control in place, goals set, and a timeline prepared, it’s time to finalize your plans.
It’s important to maintain a degree of flexibility and adaptability as you follow your initial plan. However, this marks the end of the planning stage and the point when you can officially begin the project.