How To Plan a Project

by Lyena Solomon October 26th, 2011 


Often tasks appear unmanageable. For example, you need to implement a new URL structure for a thousand page site. Or, you need to coordinate content development for a brand new topic. Or, better yet, you are made responsible for moving your website to a new Content Management System (CMS). A complicated task just graduated to a project.

Complex projects require careful planning. In order to meet deadlines, you need to have a road map, anticipate problems and manage communication. Any project starts with planning, continues to execution, completes with a roll-out, and transforms into support.

How do you plan a project?

Step 1: Project purpose, scope and outcome.

Nothing good comes out of any project if you don't know why you are doing it. What is the big problem you are trying to solve? Are you sure that your solution will solve the problem?

Another useful question to ask is, "Why now?" The answer will help determine not only the scope of the project but will allow you to be flexible and focused during the execution phase. If the project is critical to the success of the company, then your deadlines will be more rigid. If the project is a functionality improvement or "nice to have", then you can be more liberal with your deadlines and priorities. So, how does your project fit in the overall strategic and competitive plan for your company? How does it relate to the business goals and direction?

Define your project boundaries and parameters. What are the rules? In other words, write down the scope of the project and the standards you follow to make decisions.

Determine what outcome you expect after the project is complete. How will you know it is done? What are your success metrics? If down the road it is unclear what to do next, you can review the outcome definition to clarify the roadmap.

Step 2: Brainstorming

Gathering ideas and converting them into tasks is a critical part of a project. Write down absolutely everything that comes to mind.

Inform your team of the goal, scope and expected outcome. Start with the baseline - what is your current situation? What do you know and what you need to find out? What do you need to consider to ensure success?

I suggest you separate your brainstorming parameters into 2 categories - internal and external. For best results, have a brainstorm session for each and invite only principals.

External tasks affect people outside your team. These are stakeholders in your project and people overseeing the operations of the company.

Internal tasks affect your team members. They encompass all the tasks you and your team needs to do before the project can be called done and you pop the champagne.

  • Stakeholders. Who cares about the results of this project?
  • Politics. There is always politics in a company with more than one employee. Whose buy-in do you need? Can you get it and how fast? If not you, who can?
  • Public Relations. Do you need to inform other people in the company about the progress of your project? Who those people would be? What exactly would they care about? How will you keep them in the loop?
  • Legal. What are potential legal issues? Are there any regulations you have to follow? Is there content approval process that goes through legal department? Are there new processes to establish? Who will be involved? What is the approval turnaround time?
  • Finance. How much will the project cost and do you need Finance sign off? Do you need approvals for additional spend on tools, servers, software, outsourcing and other expenses? Who is the person to sign off on your requests? What is the potential pay-off for the company? Does finance need reports and what kind?
  • Operations. First, timing. What is the project deadline? What can make it slip? Who will be doing the work? Can you get outside help? How will you ensure that the project will be done on time?
  • Administration. Who will be accountable for the success? How will you communicate? What reports will you need and who will do them? Is there additional information that you need? How often will you have status meetings? If you hire consultants, what skills will they need to have? Who will guide and supervise them? What training do you need and how will you get it?
  • Resources. This can be both internal and external tasks. Most often, it will affect your own team. But you might need outside input. Decide, whose input will you need. If something like your project has been done before, learn from the mistakes and successes of the previous project. Then, look at your resources. Do you have enough? What resources you might need?
  • Equipment. What tools do you need for the project? When? If you don't have them, can you get them? When? Do you require additional phones, computers, space, desks, printers, scanners, etc.? How will you get them?
  • Research. Do you need to conduct additional research to complete this project?

Your project success depends on quality of work and anticipating of risks. Who is going to ensure the quality? Anticipate risks and outline ahead of time how you will handle them.

Step 3: Organizing

After brainstorming, you need to group the tasks into sub-projects anticipating task sequences (dependencies) and priorities. Identify critical tasks without which you cannot complete the project. These tasks will be your milestones. Define deliverables, who is responsible for them, and set deadlines. Deadlines will slip. Leave some room to account for that.

Create charts, outlines, lists, processes to help with the project flow, review and control. Create guidelines. For example, if there is a new URL structure - what is it? What is the document-naming convention? What directories contain which content?

Finally, look at your sub-projects and identify next actions. Assign people to tasks and set deadlines.

Final Thoughts

The middle of every successful project looks like a disaster.
- Rosabeth Moss Cantor

The better your planning, the more likely your project will be a success. Imagine doing every action. Is the flow natural? Keep lines of communication open, meet frequently to discuss the status of the project, and address problems as soon as they arrive - that way you will complete your project on time.

Have you managed a complex project? What was your experience?

See also:

Lyena Solomon

I am leading the SEO and analytics teams providing strategy and overseeing processes. I facilitate and carry out training and testing latest strategies to improve conversion and revenue. Being a people person, I establish and maintain relationships with vendors and business partnerships.

Personal Blog

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2 Responses to “How To Plan a Project”

  1. Lyena, great breakdown! I especially like your point about bringing Finance into the picture. Large projects tend to experience scope creep, and there are often aspects that cannot be anticipated. Plus, clients become educated throughout the project, which opens their vision to more opportunities for developing content, apps, social media outreach, etc. Accordingly, they need budget and resources. Actually, I've started to think of "scope creep" as "vision expansion." The more they learn about possibilities, the more they understand the value of expanding their marketing campaigns and how online and offline all fit together.

    I love that disaster quote. Like building a house, there are times when all one sees are wood and nails.

    Nice outline!

    • Dana,
      You make a great point about projects changing during execution. Not only the scope, but the process, resources, priorities, teams, etc. can change too. That is why it is also very important to keep open and frequent communication with the client ("stakeholders" in this post). Make sure you are set to deliver not only what they expect, but what they also need.