The planning phase plays a key role in the project life cycle. The importance of this phase can be summarised in one sentence: don’t put the cart before the horses.
To make sure you’ll lead a successful project and to define a precise project scope, don’t neglect project planning. This phase allows you to reflect on how the idea for the project was born, to remind you of its usefulness and its objectives relative to your organisation’s needs, but also to determine whether or not it would be feasible.
Do you want your projects to succeed? Learn more about the role of the planning phase in the development of your project and the steps to planning a project!
Overview of the project life cycle
The project management process is made up of 5 distinct phases. The different stages of the project life cycle are as follows:
- The initiation phase, which describes the moment the idea for a project is born. This is when the goals and purpose of the project are decided. They are then written down in a project charter.
- The planning phase, which aims at taking a step back and finding the best way to execute your vision of the project. Pivotal documents, including the project schedule, are created at this step. The success of your project hinges on good planning.
- The execution phase, which consists of completing the actual operational tasks related to the project. Meetings are held and reports shared to ensure everything is running smoothly.
- The control phase, which works hand-in-hand with the execution phase to monitor its progress. Monitor and control the various activities to ensure milestones are reached before set deadlines.
- The closure phase, which is when the deliverables are checked for quality and sent to the client. This phase allows the project team to reflect on the project and collect knowledge that could be useful for future projects.
Note that these stages overlap with each other at some point in most projects. Initiation and planning can happen very close together, while closing can be prepared during the final stages of the execution phase.
As project planning is both one of the most important phases and one of the trickiest, it will be discussed in detail below.
What is the planning phase?
A successful project always requires preliminary studies to be done: these are conducted during the project planning phase, the second stage in the project life cycle.
Among the objectives of this high-level phase are to determine the usefulness and feasibility of the project before deciding whether to get started or scrap the project. This decision is taken based on the analysis of relevant information, including:
- Technical data: is the company able to mobilise the required skills and tools? Would this be possible internally, or would external contractors be needed?
- Economic & financial data: would the ROI (Return on Investment) make up for the cost of the project? Is the market expected to expand?
When managing multiple projects, this phase can also help the project team prioritise the project portfolio. Priorities could be decided according to the expected returns, constraints and risks associated with each project.
All in all, the planning phase is designed to keep projects on track by identifying problems and changes that could arise later down the road, and that the project fits in the long-term strategy of the firm. It serves as the basis for cost, quality and risk management throughout the execution of the project.
The 7 steps of project planning
To plan your project the right way, anticipate risks and produce the relevant documents, be sure to complete the steps below during the planning process of your project.
1. Defining project needs
The needs analysis or needs study will allow you to write down project needs and list requirements. You should write down concisely:
- The goal and purpose of the project,
- Its context,
- Its scope of the project,
- The relevant stakeholders,
- The objectives and needs of the end-users or client,
- The deadline and milestones,
- The expected benefits,
- The potential impacts on your business.
2. Conducting an opportunity study
To make sure the project is relevant and useful, you can proceed to an opportunity study. It will be conducted in the light of project needs, to which you will compare:
- The results of analysis such as SWOT or PESTEL, as well as the corporate strategy, key success factors and criteria to evaluate project performance.
- The expected benefits, in a quantifiable way. Use SMART metrics (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) as KPIs to express and track the results to achieve.
- Different scenarios and routes to account for the ways the execution of the project could play out.
3. Conducting the feasibility study
The feasibility study completes the previous step. Its goal is to ensure that there is a balance between the 3 important factors underpinning all types of projects:
- The quality to deliver,
- The delays to respect,
- The costs to support.
To do so, it describes the resources and constraints associated with the project. It could include cost estimates or quality standards to uphold, so that all team members and stakeholders are aware of the challenges and objectives of the project. This makes sure they will be on board and engaged during the execution phase.
4. Creating the Work Breakdown Structure
The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) method is often used in project management to divide a project into tasks and subtasks. This helps project managers assign roles and responsibilities, as well as to organise project deliverables into more manageable workloads.
5. Drawing the project schedule
Once you have defined which tasks will be necessary to complete to develop your project, you can organise the project schedule. At this step, the Gantt chart will be your best ally.
It allows you to represent your roadmap visually to always know where you stand.
It will be the main tool used by the project manager to gauge the progress of the project execution.
Other useful tools include the PERT diagram, which enables you to find the critical path and know which tasks are interdependent or could be delayed without impacting the final date project deliverables would be completed.
If your project depends on a set deadline that cannot be moved, consider using backward planning to plan your project without missing the D-Day.
6. Planning resources and budget
The management of resources is crucial to your project success. Hence why resource planning is such an important part of a thought-out project plan.
Resource planning is the process of optimising the resources available to keep the project running smoothly, without delays or conflicts. To achieve this, you should think of which resources will need to be available to complete each task, when and for how long.
Your resource plan should outline the way resources will be allocated based on priority, as well as how each will be sourced in time to avoid causing delays. Take your budget into account, as it will have an impact on which resources you’ll be able to access for the project.
7. Devising a communication plan
It is a well-known fact that achieving success in project management requires extensive teamwork and communication skills. This includes the project team, but also all kinds of stakeholders, including those external to the project.
A communication plan should take into account all relevant stakeholders that will impact the project throughout its development, and outline the communication strategy that should be used for each.
Use techniques such as stakeholder mapping to establish a comprehensive list of all stakeholders and sort them into interest groups. Keeping them informed and engaged will prevent obstacles and unforeseen delays to happen later on.
What comes next?
As you’ve seen, the project planning phase impacts the entire project life cycle, as it lays the foundation for the entire monitoring system used by the project manager to track the progress made by team members.
Do not neglect to conduct careful planning to ensure the project is feasible and useful. It’s also at this stage that the next step, meaning the execution phase is planned and that project deliverables are divided into tasks to be assigned.
To make each stage of the project easier to manage, be sure to get help from the best project management software. These can facilitate the creation of dashboards and Gantt charts to ensure your project stays on track!