Project planning typically has the image of being the realm of large organisations with multiple departments coming together for a year or more to deliver goals.

However, being able to plan projects in small businesses can be pivotal to business success.

Managing projects in smaller businesses involves dealing with a unique set of challenges compared to larger organisations. For one, you usually need to work within limited resources and staff, yet still be able to pull it off.

Project managers need to stay on top of every facet of the project to hit your goals on time without going over budget. Once your organisation gets to a certain size, the temptation to just wing it isn’t an option.

Let’s take a closer look then, at how to go about planning a project within a small business, starting with the importance of project management methodology.

Do you need project management methodology?

Project management methodology will guide the direction of the entire project, the key roles for each person involved, and the information which needs to be shared with everyone.

With the right methodology, you can:

  • Give your team strict and consistent guidelines that everyone should adhere to from start to finish
  • Measure every stage of the project and assess if you are on the right track
  • Set up procedures and processes to minimise rogue decisions and prevent overspending

There are a number of established project management methodologies out there, like Six Sigma, Waterfall and Agile. The most recognised is PRINCE2 methodology, which is also a globally recognised qualification. Methodologies give structure to your project, inform how you define roles and responsibilities, set and track deliverables as well as plan the project in detail. Many of the planning processes in this guide are taken from PRINCE2 but can be seen as rules of thumb to any methodological approach to project management.

Once you’re set on following a specific methodology, planning the project comes next. This is more than just listing down all the tasks that need to be accomplished or setting up a monthly schedule. Project planning details each step, how to reach your goals, which objectives to measure, scope and limitations, and who is in charge of which responsibility.

When done right, it streamlines the entire process. During this phase, make sure everything is documented, so you can go back to your notes when needed.

Break it down into 6 steps

Let’s look at the planning process in detail then. I’ve broken it down into six steps.

>> Sit down with stakeholders

The project’s key stakeholders have the final say as to whether the project is ultimately a success or not. As such, it’s important that you secure their commitment before executing, as it would be hard to move forward without their support.

Keep in mind that stakeholders tend to disagree or not fully commit when they don’t understand the project. Lay down the project’s goals and its value to the organisation. Let them know what they should expect, the scope, the process, and how they will figure in the project (if needed).

Also, list down the budget, resources, your objectives and KPIs, plus the timeline. Don’t keep them in the dark. Even if the project was the CEO’s idea, you’ll still need their support.

>> Define roles and responsibilities

Although stakeholders will back you up, not all of them will read the entire project documentation. They are, after all, ultimately concerned with the end results.

As such, you need to designate key people to oversee certain aspects of the project as well as those who will execute them. For small businesses, this may be limited to a small number of people, so some (or all) of you may take on more than one responsibility.

Start by determining which positions need to be filled. At its most basic form, you will need one project manager and a team to execute the plan. The number of people in the team will depend on the deliverables needed and the timeframe you’re going to work with. Keep in mind that over-stressing anyone will only harm the project, so make sure each person can reasonably execute their task.

If the project scope is bigger, you may also need to get sponsors on board for funding, hire experts as resources, work with specialists for consultation, and/or get a pool of end users for testing.

>> Create detailed project documents

Create project documents that will detail every task, deliverable, goal, and KPI. These documents will serve as a guide for the team to refer to as the project moves forward.

Depending on how big the project is, you may need some or all of the following:

  • Scope statement – This lays down the foundation of the project. Include the problems you aim to solve, objectives, KPIs, benefits for the company, and limitations.
  • Deliverables – This details each deliverable that needs to be produced, the work that has to be executed, and all other activities. If there are any huge deliverables, break them down into smaller ones, so you can distribute the work and pace the deadline accordingly.
  • Milestones – These mark the start of each project stage.
  • Reviews – These are ‘checkpoints’ wherein each milestone will be assessed vis-a-vis the overall project goal (often by stakeholders).
  • Interdependencies – These are tasks that depend on the completion of another task before starting. It’s important to note this down, so you can also adjust the schedule.

>> Develop a realistic schedule and cost estimate

While the schedule and cost estimates are also considered project documents, these two deserve a separate section as project managers need to be careful and realistic with them.

Start with the following:

  • Pinpoint which tasks need additional resources and list all these down
  • Provide a realistic timeframe for the completion of each activity (you can look at previous projects for a baseline)
  • Estimate the cost of each activity (an hourly rate is a good starting point)
  • Take into account any limitations your team might have (e.g. manpower) and factor those in the timeframe
  • Determine which are interdependent tasks and plan for a schedule that will not delay the entire project

Once you’ve done the tasks above, plug your project into a schedule that will cover the time estimate of each deliverable. Make sure the calendar details who will produce which deliverable and their respective deadlines. For instance, if the entire project runs for six months, the schedule should reflect the tasks that will be completed each week.

For the cost estimate, come up with a budget which will cover any additional resources and how long the production will be.

>> Develop a communications and approval process

As the project is being executed, you need to regularly check in with stakeholders and the rest of the team to make sure everything is going as planned. Remember that the lack of communication often hampers any project.

Use a project management tool such as nTask or Angatty that everyone can update themselves once they have finished a task. Team members can see the next steps, while stakeholders can easily check the current status of the project and suggest any changes to be made.

Create an approval process that includes who reports to which leader and how often, as well as how to escalate any issues.

>> Throw a kick-off party!

Once the planning is done, throw a kick-off party where stakeholders and team members are included. Present the plan, so everyone will be on the same page once the project begins.

Fail to plan, plan to fail

Despite how meticulous you are with planning, things can still go south. Analyse the risks and plan to mitigate their effects should they occur.

 Process documents are live documents. Don’t be surprised if you need to update/change certain parts along the way.

While it’s tempting to go straight to the actual execution when starting a project, remember that rushing into it without a solid plan will only create bigger (and possibly costly) mistakes later. Project planning may take time, but it will provide a clear set of objectives, assess the risks, avoid miscommunication, and get everyone on the same page.

David Baker is marketing manager at PRINCE2 Training, which provides courses and certification in PRINCE2, Agile, Lean Six Sigma, ITIL, PMP, and Scrum project management methodologies.

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