How to Plan Better Projects

When you’re running projects, it often feels like people expect you to be superhuman. Executives and stakeholders expect instant project updates, or new resources added to the plan, or other resources shifted from the plan. There are constant changes in scope, changes in timeline and the project needs to be delivered on time and under budget. All that… and quality, too.

If you’re not trained in project management tools and processes, you can find yourself scrambling to create time-sucking spreadsheets and reports in Excel, or spending hours on the phone managing shifting resources, or scratching your head trying to figure out how to add that new feature requested by the CEO, all the while keeping the project on schedule.

Luckily, you don’t need to be a certified project manager to learn how stay in charge of your project and how to get the right tools to help you weather whatever storms come your way. The following five tips (plus our handy infographic!) will help.

Step 1: Define the Direction

Okay, really. How do you do this when the project is assigned to you?

Well, remember, just because someone else—the CEO, your boss, a client—asked for the project with specific targets in mind, doesn’t mean that they don’t expect you to run it the way you think is best! Formal project managers know that they have a mandate to pushback against stakeholders when the project scope is threatened; the organization depends on that point person to run the project and keep everyone else (yes, bosses included) on point.

So take up the mandate. Start with clearly identifying the vision, goals and deliverables for your project. Note the timeframes in which you need to have delivery. Figure out the resources available and which of those you’ll need for the project. You’ll also be required to know what is “in scope” and what is “out of scope” (or define that by yourself for the team upfront). Think, too, about the overall benefits and costs in delivering the project. Note key milestones and what may be constraints in the project.

Ask yourself these and any other relevant questions regarding the project. Only after you’ve exhausted this preliminary overview and agreed on it with the leadership team, stakeholders and/or project sponsor, will you know what you’re supposed to achieve in the project.

Step 2: Create tasks with online tools

Okay, once you’ve done the due diligence above, you’re ready to start actually planning the project, and the only way to do that these days is with an online project management tool.

Bonus: It’s 2015!

It’s never been easier to plan projects and simplify your work. We’re biased of course, but look for tools that you can start using without training. You’ll need to assign tasks and share the project with people of many different skillsets, so they’ll need to be able to use it easily. Also, since you don’t know everything that can impact your project, make sure you have a tool that can help with your whole project, as it gets more complex down the line. In addition to task management, you’ll want to look for resource management, as well as reporting. You don’t want to have to graduate to a better tool midway through your project.

Now, to your tasks. You’ll want to identify the groups of tasks that need to be done in order to build your project deliverables. For each of these tasks you’ll then have to break them down into subtasks to create what formal PMs call a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). The WBS is just a hierarchical list of the tasks you need to accomplish on your project, listed in the order in which you need to do them, which in your online tool simply looks like this:

Next, assign a start and an end date to each of these tasks, and don’t forget to give each task a duration to adhere to your schedule.

Pro tip: Always give yourself a little cushion of extra-time, maybe 10 percent, to give yourself wiggle room in case of unforeseen difficulties. After that, plot some key milestones, any place that marks a major achievement in the lifecycle of your project. Milestones will help you remember good times for ordering pizza for a job well done.

Step 3: Link tasks… it’s really not that hard.

Now you’ll want to add links, or dependencies, between the project tasks you’ve selected above. Your project management tool will do this so easily, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this before. The genius part is that the tool automatically adjusts the downstream task if the earlier task is delayed. It literally saves you time having to re-adjust schedules to accomodate every little change to the project.

There are a number of different link types, but experienced project managers are usually interested in finish-to-start links to make sure one task isn’t started until the one before it has been completed. Use the link method wisely: to keep the project achievable, only add these links between the tasks for which there is a critical dependency between them.

Step 4: Assign resources. These people will help you.

Well, the rubber is about to hit the road now. You’re at the point where it’s time to start assigning resources. A resource, of course, may be a person, equipment, location or material. You’ll want to attach a resource to each of the tasks on your list, sometimes more than one to a task, whatever it takes to complete that assignment.

Using your online tool, you’ll be setting them up as “users” in the system. How does this help you?

Well, they will update their own tasks when they’re complete. They’ll fill in their timesheets. They’ll link project documents to their assigned task. They’ll comment on a task, and all the while you’re sitting back getting email alerts every time a change is made.

Pro-tip: While you’re assigning resources, keep an eye on resource allocation by monitoring their workload in a color-coded fashion, like this:

Don’t over-assign a specific resource to multiple tasks (the resources in yellow are nearly over-allocated). That would stress the resource to the point that it or they will not be able to complete what has been assigned.

Step 5: Baseline, Actuals and Reporting… Oh my.

More project management terms that might send you running, until you realize how these concepts can help you, and how they’re already built in to your planning tool.


Once you set up your plan, you’ll want to set it up as a baseline to later be able to compare your progress against the original plan. By recording your actual progress and comparing that to the planned progress you have a good idea of how successfully you’re adhering to your plan. Then your project dashboard shows nice happy colors, like the Progress chart on the left:

What you need to do, everyday, is record the amount of time you’ve spent against each task, and also record the new planned start and finish dates, as well as monitor the overall project completion date. Remember to report on progress as you go through the lifecycle of your project. By regularly updating your project plan with your actual progress, you can control and manage the delivery of your project and meet the critical goals you set.

Take it further: If you want to learn even more about project management processes, watch Jennifer Bridges, PMP, in this video: “5 Steps to Project Management Planning.”

Written By: Stephanie Ray


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