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Planning a Project

Updated: May 22

Introduction to the Planning Phase

Welcome to the project planning phase, where the foundations laid during initiation begin to take shape, and the roadmap to project delivery is drawn.

Without robust planning, projects are like ships without rudders.

Planning sets the tone for how the project will proceed and, perhaps more importantly, how it adapts to the inevitable challenges and scope adjustments.

Here, the abstract becomes defined, and the nebulous, clear.

Below is a summary of the main activities and outputs. If you start panicking looking at this, thinking it's too complex, then a warning: even the smallest projects are complex (otherwise, its actually a task list).

You can skip parts, but make it a conscious decision as to why. The items here have a good reason to exist, so you'll need a better reason for them not to exist.

I'd include everything, but maybe keep it as minimal as you feel you can get away with. For example, a Quality Plan could be a page or less summarising your approach, but it will come back to bite you if it doesn't exist.

I guarantee it.


The Main Activities of Project Planning

Key Steps



Gather Requirements & Undertake Business Analysis

  • Identifying needs

  • Documenting process

  • Capturing user flows

  • Requirements and existing processes documentation

Build a Comprehensive Project Plan

  • Define detailed scope and objectives

  • Create meticulous scheduling

  • Comprehensive cost management

  • Establish quality assurance protocols

  • Resource allocation

  • Set communication guidelines

  • Detailed project plan

  • Schedules

  • Budget estimates

Develop Work Breakdown Structures (WBS)

  • Define major deliverables

  • Decompose into manageable tasks

  • Assign responsibilities

  • Time and resource planning

  • Work Breakdown Structure diagram

Budgeting: Estimate and Allocate Costs

  • Base estimates on the WBS

  • Aggregate costs to form the budget

  • Incorporate contingency funds

  • Review and revise

  • Approval and baseline

  • Comprehensive project budget

Establish a Quality Plan

  • Define quality standards

  • Establish quality metrics

  • Plan for quality control activities

  • Assign responsibilities

  • Feedback and adjustment mechanisms

  • Quality assurance framework

Develop a Communication Plan

  • Identify stakeholders

  • Define key messages

  • Choose communication channels

  • Set the frequency

  • Assign responsibilities

  • Project communication plan

Execute Gate Approval

  • Present the project management plan

  • Highlight alignments and address gaps

  • Seek feedback and make adjustments

  • Secure final approvals

  • Stakeholder-approved project management plan


Gather Requirements

Requirements Gathering & Business Analysis

Before we roll up our sleeves and dive into the brass tacks of project execution, let's talk about the linchpin of project success; Requirements Gathering & Business Analysis. This is about deeply understanding the 'as is' processes, envisaging the 'to be' scenarios, and sculpting a path that bridges the two effectively.

Laying the Groundwork

Identifying Stakeholder Needs

Begin with the stakeholders.

Who are they? What do they need from this project?

This involves engaging them through interviews, surveys, and observation sessions to capture their requirements accurately.

Mapping Current Processes

Detail out the existing processes. This step isn't glamorous but is essential.

You need to know the current state of affairs - warts and all - to understand the baseline from which improvements or changes will be made.

The worst thing a project can do is introduce new ways of working without understanding the old ways and ensuring that whatever it introduces (new tech, process, etc.) doesn't adversely affect those it seeks help with. Frankly, it's easily done.

Recently, I worked on a project where it was crucial to the Finance team that VAT was calculated in alignment with some complex EU legislation, and boy, am I glad I did my homework because it transpired the software we were implementing couldn't handle it – imagine going live with a problem like that, and then realising…

Documenting Existing User Flows

An example of a user flow

Each user interaction with the system or process should be mapped.

These user flows help visualise the user's journey through the current system/processes and identify pain points and areas for enhancement.

User Flows can be vital if you introduce software or a new process. They can be a bedrock for developing test plans later.

Maybe your project has little or nothing to do with technology or software, but if it has humans as part of it, they'll likely be undertaking tasks that need to be captured.

Here's an example of a user flow, but they can be in many formats. Whatever works.


Facilitating Workshops

Bring together cross-functional teams to thrash out ideas, challenge existing norms, and brainstorm new solutions.

Workshops are great for uncovering hidden requirements and forging consensus, but they need careful planning regarding their objectives, the questions that need answering and how you will engage people. Just walking into a room without preparation probably won't cut it. 

Business Analysis is a job in and of itself. You'll probably have dedicated resources for medium to larger projects, but it could just be you for a smaller project.

Here's the thing: when you are working to replace something or slot it in around existing processes and people, you'll need to understand how things work so you don't accidentally implement something that makes it worse. 

So, understand the people and processes you will likely interrupt. For example; if you are introducing a new payment system like PayPal to your organisation, you can't drop it on the Finance team without speaking to them and understanding their current banking, transaction and reconciliation processes.

Talk to people.

Map it out.

Seek to understand.


Develop a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

All right, let's roll up our sleeves and dive into the nuts and bolts of the project by creating the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

The WBS is about slicing the project into bite-sized pieces and setting the stage for execution to ensure that every task is manageable and less intimidating.

It's an optional but much-valued technique that can help you visualise the composition of your project.

An example of a WBS
WBS example

Map Out the Major Deliverables

Identify the significant outcomes required to complete your project. Using the example of planning a big party, consider the critical elements—such as the venue, catering, and music. These are your major deliverables. Clearly outline these deliverables upfront because they represent the key results your project promises to achieve.

Break It Down

Decompose each primary deliverable into smaller, more manageable tasks. For instance, if the venue is a major deliverable, your related tasks might include booking the venue, confirming the availability on your chosen date, and coordinating decorations and seating arrangements.

This step involves detailing every component that needs to be addressed to deliver the larger items successfully.

  • Understanding WBS Elements: Not every element in a WBS is a direct output like a product or service; some may be phases, stages, or categories of work. However, the majority of elements should be deliverables.

  • Decomposition: Break down each deliverable to the point where it can be assigned and managed independently. This often means decomposing to the work package level, which is detailed enough for assignment to a team or individual but general enough not to include step-by-step tasks.

Assign responsibility

Assign a team member or a group responsible for each work package. This helps in accountability and ensures that every part of the project has a designated owner.

Review & Refine

Review the WBS with stakeholders and refine it. This ensures that the WBS accurately reflects all project aspects and receives buy-in from everyone involved.

Why Bother with a WBS?

Creating a WBS might seem like an extra step, but it's a powerhouse tool that keeps everyone on the same page.

It breaks the mammoth task of managing a whole project into smaller, more digestible parts, making it easier to track progress, allocate resources, and spot potential issues before they become big problems.

Build a Comprehensive Project Plan

Once the transition from initiation is in our rear-view mirror, it's time to steer into the heart of the project—crafting a comprehensive project plan.

The project plan is the tentpole of your project, ensuring every part is coordinated and every action purposeful.

Selecting a Tool

I'm kinda glossing over creating a project plan here because it is such a big thing and deserves its own guide.

However, many tools in the marketplace can make it easier. There are lots of things that might help you select one, but consider the following;

  • Do you have the budget for a tool? If not, that will limit your options, but there are still lots to explore.

  • Will a spreadsheet do? It might do if your project is small and without many dependencies.

  • How many people are working on the project, and do they need a single tool to update their activities/workstreams?

  • What does your organisation already have in place? I can't tell you how often I've seen projects go off and purchase their own project management tool without looking at what's already available.


Break the phases into stages and gates.

Depending upon the size and nature of your project, you may wish to consider breaking it into stages and more manageable sections. For example, you might plan out a proof of concept stage, a development stage, and a test stage, all of which sit within the Execution Phase of the project.

It's entirely up to you.

The benefit of segmentation of a project like this is that it allows larger projects to improve their focus and manageability. So, you lay out all the stages in the project plan but only paint the details for the stage you are about to go into. This can help you avoid constantly revising project plans in minute detail.

At the end of each stage should be a project gate.

A project gate is an approval step whereby you review the outputs of the stage with the stakeholders and ensure the project is ready to move forward before doing so.

Unfortunately, projects often lay out the stages and gates but then barrel through them in their anxiousness to get completed.

Gates act as checkpoints throughout the project, and the criteria for passing each one may be different, but here are some examples of the kind of things you might have;

  • Completion of Deliverables: All scheduled deliverables for the stage have been completed and meet the pre-defined quality standards.

  • Budget Adherence: The project is on budget, with expenditures closely aligned with the forecasted amounts, and any variances are well-justified and approved.

  • Milestone Achievement: Key milestones are achieved according to the project timeline, and any delays are addressed with a clear plan for getting back on track.

  • Risk Management: Existing risks have been effectively managed and mitigated, and new risks are identified with strategies in place to handle them.

  • Stakeholder Approval: All key stakeholders have reviewed progress and outputs, providing formal approval to move forward to the project's next phase.

Build out the Schedule

Every project is bound by time, which is one of the significant constraints.

Making a detailed schedule is critical to the project plan.

Lay out the timelines for each task, identifying dependencies and critical milestones. Don't consider it a finished article but an evolving canvas.

Create broad blocks for the latter stages of the project, as well as details for the next stage. You need just enough to give confidence in the project's scheduling, shaping and costing.

Allocate Resources

Ensure your plan clearly outlines who does what, when, and with what tools.

This section ensures every team member has the necessary resources at the right time, avoiding bottlenecks and maximising efficiency.

With these elements in place, your project plan becomes a robust guide for navigating the execution complexities. It's a living document that adapts and evolves but keeps the project progressing towards its objectives.

Validate and Approve

Before this plan can take effect, it needs the green light—approval from key stakeholders. This validation step is crucial as it ensures the plan aligns with the business objectives and has the backing it needs to move forward.

I would typically circulate the plan beforehand and then call the core project team together to ratify it.


Update the Budget

Next on our project planning agenda is crafting the budget—where we get real about the numbers. Think of this as your project's checkbook.

Without a well-planned budget, even the most brilliantly devised project plan can run aground if the cash isn't there when needed.


Base Estimates on the WBS

Start with the Work Breakdown Structure we just fleshed out. For each task, estimate the costs associated with personnel, materials, equipment, and any other resources you'll need. It's like putting together a shopping list for a big dinner party—you need to know what you'll buy before figuring out how much it'll cost.

Aggregate Costs to Form the Project Budget

Once you have individual cost estimates, roll them up to form the overall project budget. This includes direct costs like labour and materials and indirect costs such as administrative expenses and contingency funds. Think of this step as totalling up your grocery receipt.

Incorporate Contingency Funds

 Always include a buffer for the unexpected. Projects rarely go exactly to plan, so having a contingency fund is like bringing an umbrella when there's a chance of rain—it's better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Typically, contingency will run at 10 to 15% of a project, but depending on how much risk is involved, it may differ.

You only have to watch a couple of house renovation projects on TV to realise that they usually underestimate their costs by about a third and then quickly justify the overspend to the camera. I'd say this level of underestimation is prevalent in projects. Always go for the more pessimistic number.

Review and Revise

Go over your budget with key stakeholders. This ensures that everyone agrees on the financial plan and understands where the money goes. It's also a chance to trim costs or reallocate funds if necessary.

Approval and Baseline

Once your budget is approved, it becomes the financial baseline for the project. This is your financial "line in the sand," helping you track actual spending against planned spend as the project progresses. It's like setting a speed limit—it keeps everyone driving at a safe speed.

Develop a Procurement Plan

I could write pages on this alone.

Purchases often form a significant part of a project. It could be procuring services, purchasing a software system, or, in many cases, both.

It could be a major expenditure within your project and something you are keen to get right, so I can't cover it all here; the focus really is on the components of the Planning phase rather than diving into too much detail, but here is a summary of the major activities;

Key Elements of a Procurement Plan

Now, as you read through these steps in a procurement plan, you'll start to see what it is: a mini-project plan, and that's not a bad way to think about it.

Identification of Needs

This initial step involves specifying the project's requirements for materials, equipment, and services. A thorough understanding of the project scope and deliverables is required to ensure that all procurement activities support the project objectives.

Supplier Selection

Choosing the right suppliers is crucial. They can make or break your project.

The plan should outline the criteria for selecting suppliers and the process for evaluating bids.

It often includes pre-qualifying suppliers to streamline the procurement process when the project is underway.

Just a quick word of advice; choose an organisation with a proven track record. Don't go with someone's friend. Don't go with a small organisation that is cheap, keen and enthusiastic but inexperienced.

Timeline for Procurement

Integrating procurement milestones into the overall project timeline is essential. This includes specifying when bids will be solicited, when contracts will be awarded, and when delivery of goods or services is expected. Aligning these timelines helps in avoiding project delays.

Always clarify the ramp-up timescales with suppliers. They'll likely have a waiting period, so you must factor that into your project timeline.

Budget and Cost Management

The procurement plan must also detail the budget allocated for each item and overall cost controls. This includes mechanisms for dealing with cost variances and ensures that the procurement activities do not exceed the budgetary constraints.

Risk Management

Identifying potential risks associated with procurement, such as supply chain disruptions or non-compliance by suppliers, and outlining mitigation strategies is a crucial component of the procurement plan.

What happens if your supplier speaks a good game but can't deliver when it comes to it?

How much dependence is your project putting on the supplier? Can you go elsewhere in the future, or are you locking yourselves in? If so, what happens if the supplier realises this and decides to exploit it?

I've seen companies get into awful circumstances with suppliers when they realise nobody else can provide the service they can (such as data provisions).

Contract Management

Effective contract management ensures that all parties meet their contractual obligations. This section of the plan details how contracts will be managed, monitored, and closed out upon completion.

This will likely be underpinned by the legal review next, but make sure you have tangible measures written into the contract or statement of work that clearly outline what good looks like.

Legal and Compliance

Ensuring that all procurement activities adhere to applicable laws and regulations is critical. The plan should include strategies to manage legal risk, including compliance with local and international laws that affect procurement activities.

So, does your organisation have a procurement policy you must follow, or do you have to engage with certain suppliers for specific reasons (common in government contracts with a roster of approved suppliers)?

Access to a lawyer can make a lot of difference to having a contractual agreement with some bite. However, we don't always have that luxury or the ability to change terms and conditions, so sometimes you have narrow parameters to operate within, and that's fine.


Establish a Quality Plan

Now that we've tackled the budget let's shift our focus to ensuring the quality of our project deliverables meets the mark.

A Quality Plan is about ensuring that the end product is something we can be proud of. I've been involved in enough projects with third parties who shovel crap over the fence to the customer and expect them to test it. By clarifying your approach to testing, measurement and how you are going about it up front, you are making it a crucial part of your plan.

Listen up – I've put this in this box to underline the point.

Quality Assurance / Testing is not something you can tag on at the end by putting a box in your project plan that says "Test" and give it a week. You will need a serious approach and clear responsibilities documented.

Don't underestimate it.


Define Quality Standards

Start by setting clear, measurable standards defining your project's quality. This could be anything from a customer service system's response times to a construction material's tensile strength. It's like setting the rules for a game—everyone needs to know what counts as a win.

  • Plan for Quality Control Activities: Determine what tests, reviews, audits, and inspections are needed to measure and achieve these quality standards. Think of this as your quality checkpoint strategy—where you plan to check your project's health pulse.

  • Assign Responsibilities: Clearly define who is responsible for which aspects of quality management. Assigning roles might include a quality assurance team, project managers, or specific task owners. It's about ensuring everyone knows their part and keeping the project up to standard.

Moving Forward with Quality Assurance

With a robust quality plan, your project is set to succeed and excel. High standards will help safeguard the project's outputs, ensuring they deliver the intended value and meet or exceed stakeholders' expectations.

Now that our quality plan is geared up to guide us through the project's lifecycle, it's time to step into the next phase—communication planning.

Ready to establish how we'll keep everyone informed and engaged as we roll out our project?

Develop a Communications Plan

Having set the bar for quality, let's ensure our communication is just as sharp and effective.

A Communication Plan is crucial to keep everyone in the loop and ensure that the loop doesn't turn into a noose. It's about more than blasting emails or holding endless meetings; it's about making every message count, and valuing people's time.

Crafting Your Communication Strategy

  • Identify Stakeholders: First things first, who needs to know what? Identify your project stakeholders, from team members to external partners, and identify their information needs.

  • Define Key Messages: What critical pieces of information need to be shared? Whether it's project milestones, budget updates, or changes in scope, make sure you know what messages need to go out to which stakeholders.

  • Choose Your Channels: Decide how you'll communicate. Will it be weekly email roundups, a project dashboard, or regular face-to-face meetings? Choose channels that fit the message and the audience—for instance, instant messaging might be great for quick updates, but significant changes might need a more personal touch.

  • Set the Frequency: How often will you send out updates? The frequency can depend on the phase of the project or the stakeholders' needs. It's about finding that sweet spot between saying too much and not saying enough.

  • Assign Responsibilities: Who's responsible for sending out each type of communication? Assigning clear roles ensures that communications are timely and effective.


Trigger the Execution Gate Approval

Before we let the horses out of the gate and charge into the execution phase, there's an essential checkpoint we need to clear—securing the Execution Gate Approval.

This isn't just a formality; it's a crucial review to ensure that our detailed project management plan doesn't just look good on paper but is fit for the ground's realities.


Why Is Execution Gate Approval Critical?

The Execution Gate Approval serves multiple vital functions in the project lifecycle:

  • Ensures Stakeholder Alignment: It confirms that everyone with a stake in the project's outcome agrees and is ready to support the approach. It's like ensuring all players are ready before kicking off a big game.

  • Validates the Plan's Feasibility: This approval process helps verify that the plan is practical and achievable, not just a theoretical exercise.

  • Builds Confidence: Securing this approval boosts confidence among the project team and stakeholders. It's a collective affirmation that you're all set for the journey ahead.


If you deem anything potentially volatile, I recommend exploring it with the appropriate stakeholders before you get the gate approval.

There's nothing worse than having someone kick the stool from under you while you are presenting in a meeting, so make sure materials are circulated ahead of time, and get in touch with everyone before any meeting to make sure it's smooth sailing and you look awesome.

Gate Steps

Present the Project Management Plan

Gather all your key stakeholders in the 'room where it happens'. Lay out the project management plan in all its glory, detailing your project's who, what, when, and how. This is your moment to showcase the plan that will guide your project to success.

Highlight Alignments and Address Gaps

This step demonstrates how the plan aligns with the project's objectives and stakeholder expectations. It's crucial to discuss any potential gaps or misalignments openly. Think of it as aligning gears in a machine; everything must fit perfectly to run smoothly.

Seek Feedback and Make Adjustments

Encourage stakeholders to provide feedback. This isn't just about nodding along—it's about actively seeking their insights, which could reveal blind spots or opportunities for optimisation. Adjust the plan based on this feedback to ensure it's as robust as possible.

Secure Final Approvals

Once all stakeholders are satisfied and all tweaks have been made, it's time to get the formal nod. This approval is your green light; it means your stakeholders trust that the plan is sound and ready to be implemented.

Wrapping Up

With the Execution Gate Approval in hand, we're not just crossing a checkpoint; we're reaffirming our roadmap, tightening our focus, and energising our team. Now, with everyone on board and every detail scrutinised and stamped, we're ready to dive into the action-packed world of project execution. It's go time, and we're all systems go!









About the author

Hi, I'm Alan, and have been working within the IT sector for over 30 years.

For the last 15 years, I've focused on IT Governance, Information Security, Projects and Service Management across various styles of organisations and markets.

I hold a degree in Information Systems, ITIL Expert certificate, PRINCE2 Practitioner and CISMP (Information Security Management).


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