South East Training - The Project Management Toolkit

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How Much Planning?

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The question arises at this stage in any project as to how much planning is necessary before we can move into implementation. I think we would all agree that building the High Speed Rail Link HS2 would require a fair amount of planning but what about the office Christmas Party or a staff Away Day?

A common excuse for not planning smaller projects is that you could usefully use that time just getting on with the job. A list of tasks is all you need - similar to the daily ‘To-Do’ list. And that may be true if you are solely responsible for actioning the tasks on the list, but what happens when someone else is involved?

A Christmas Carol - A Simple Example

Scenario 1

Consider a Saturday afternoon pre-Christmas shopping trip. One option might be to wander aimlessly from shop to shop, hoping that inspiration will come from looking at all the goods on display. There is no need to worry about deadlines as the shops are open until 8.00 pm and there is always tomorrow or the internet if you don't get everything today (and you can soak your feet in hot water when you get home). As for money, well there is always your second credit card (the first is up to its credit limit) and as long as its paid off by next Christmas……. Who needs a plan?

Scenario 2

That may be the case for some, but most of us would consider making some sort of a list, including what presents we want to buy and possibly where we intend to buy them. In addition, it is likely we will have thought about how much we want to spend on each (£10.00 each for Sally's twins, £25.00 on Grandpa's cardigan, etc). We may even have telephoned ahead to be sure that the Swiss Cuckoo Clock for Aunt Vera is still available from 'Kitsch Klocks’. And we may have thought of alternatives if the present we want is out of stock or too expensive.

As for the trip itself, we will have decided where to park, the route we will take from shop to shop, and what time we intend to be home to prepare the evening meal or to watch a favourite television programme. We may even have made an arrangement to meet a friend for coffee at 3.00 pm to break-up the afternoon and rest those weary feet. It is true that the only part of the plan we have documented is the shopping list, but we have still planned the event.

The Intention

The purpose, objectives and scopeChristmas gift shopping - completed by the end of the afternoon - no food shopping
What will be produced?The presents
The tasksBuy the presents on the list
The sequence of activities and their dependenciesPark car, visit shops in sequence, have coffee, etc.
Who is responsible for each task?You and friend to drink coffee with
What resources are required?Money, shoe leather and stamina
Timescales for each task and for the project overallStart at 11am. Coffee at 3.00 pm. Home by 6.00 pm
How progress against the plan will be monitoredAssess progress during coffee break. Cross-off items on list and adjust as necessary
How communication will be maintained throughout the projectMobile phone to contact friend if running late or to contact partner if going to be late home
The risks to the project and any contingent actions

Preventive action - telephone ahead for unusual items (e.g. Cuckoo Clocks)Contingent action - have alternatives (blue cardigan instead of green)

The Unforeseen

Now imagine that on Friday evening, whilst putting out the milk bottles, you slip on the ice and break a leg. You have been to hospital and you are now sitting at home with the leg in plaster. Your partner, ever to the rescue, offers to do the shopping for you and to have coffee with your friend. How do you communicate your plan and ensure that the project still meets its objectives?

The Revised Plan

You already have a simple shopping list, but you may need to add more detail - sizes for the clothes, shops to try, maximum expenditure, alternatives if items not available. So the documented plan becomes more complete.

What about the other elements of the plan - the car parking, the sequence of shops, the meeting with the friend? If we assume that our partner is an experienced shopper, we might decide to leave the car parking and sequencing to him/her. After all, this is now their plan.

As for the meeting with the friend, you might need to make a note on the back of the list or even sketch a map to show which table in the busy café you normally use. In other words, the documented plan should reflect the needs of the project team members. It should help effective communication and minimise ambiguity whilst not stifling the opportunity for the team members to contribute to the plan.

At the end of the trip, the shopping list can be used as a basis for reviewing achievement of objectives with your partner.


Even the simplest of projects needs some sort of a plan to ensure achievement of objectives. How much of the plan we choose to document depends on how much detail we need as project leaders to retain control (the simple shopping list helps focus our thoughts and keeps us on task), and how much we need to communicate the details of the plan to others (members of the project team generally will not be able to read your mind). The level of detail has to reflect the team's need for information and direction.

Key Points

  • The basis plan consists of the ‘what’, i.e. the products - see product based planning
  • The level of detail should reflect the needs of the user(s)
  • We allow the user to plan the ‘how’, i.e. the tasks necessary to create the products, possibly with the exception of some tasks that are considered necessary to prevent or mitigate know risks.