Seven step planning

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This “Seven  Step Planning” is written in an interactive style and targeted for non project managers and entry-level project managers on “How to Plan an Undertaking/Initiative or a Mission/Project”. It’s received during one of the many project management courses and was very useful for me to apply in the field.

Step Zero: All about Planning

Planning is nothing but predicting and sequencing the tasks for getting-things-done on some measurement. The objective is to realize “What I am supposed to perform?” “How soon I should complete”, “How much it may cost?” and “How well I should do this” etc. The planning is necessary to avoid facing any surprises during the execution of a job or goal.

Planning is required at every phase of your mature life, when ever you embrace a complex goal to reach a new level of achievement. You would like to construct a house or buy an apartment, or you took some initiative to help your community or you were asked to manage a project so need to plan it. Whatever the goal is, you are determined to achieve it. To transform the GOAL into an achievement, you need to have a clear roadmap or plan to reach the destiny. A Goal without a proper plan keeps you always, in “I have yet to start” or “from where do I have to start” or “What next?” or “I have to do it again” kind of status. The true reasons behind any unsuccessful goal attainment are “not seeing the big-picture” and “not able to split the larger VISION into GOALS/MILESTONES and then into ACTIVITIES and those into SMALL TASKS”. A well completed plan in your hand surely motivates you to work on your goal more effectively because you already prepared yourself for what / when / how you are going to do it and the challenges you are going to face, etc.

Now, you might have some understanding on the importance of PLANNING. I would recommend you to try below my seven step technique, which may help you determine where to start and how to end the planning efforts. Remember, the planning is a repetitive process but not really a one-stretch-effort. My Seven-step approach is all about completing one cycle, which you may further refine through multiple iterations. “How many iterations?” or “When to stop or conclude the planning?” are dependent on “your in-depth knowledge of the functional environment of your goal” and “Changes occurring during or after your planning”. When you realize any unawareness of “What / How / When to do?” you should do some research or consult an expert in the related field of your Goal /Activity/Task before or during the planning.

Step-One – Define/Refine Your Goal

A goal or aim is the consequence of your new aspiration, idea, vision, need, or somebody’s expectation/advice. Setting the goal or an aim is not as simple as you deciding to achieve something but thinking through:

“Why this goal is for me?”

“What problem or need triggered me to set this goal?”

“What will I gain or lose, if I do or do not achieve this goal”

“Who are the beneficiaries for the outcome of this effort?”

“Who all are impacted? Or who else should be involved?”

“What are the boundaries or scope of my goal?

“What would be a better solution or approach to attain this goal?”

“Do I have the right skills? What learning is required to fill the skill-gaps?”

“What laws or regulations am I bound to?”

“Who will be my mentor or expert for guidance and approvals?”

“What are the estimated timelines to complete and required contingency?”

“What are the estimated costs at high-level and required + or – contingency?”

“Do I deserve or qualify for the outcome of this goal?”

“What are my challenges or show-stoppers in the path of my fulfillment?”

“What are my decision-making-points or Go or No-Go situations?”

“What are the performance indicators for Progress, Cost and Schedule?”

At the end of Step-one, you may or may not have full details to answer these questions, but you have to discuss with your friends, team or experts and document the facts as much as possible, so that you would be able to validate how SMART* (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) your Goal is and also helps to complete following steps of planning. A final discussion with your mentor always helps for making any corrections to your “Goal Definition” document that  subsequently helps in solid planning.

*SMART coined by Peter Drucker in 1954

Step Two: Identify GIVEs and GETs

In this practical world, the complex part of ‘Getting-things-done’ is managing your GIVE and GET. You either deliver something (GIVE) to someone or depend on someone to gain (GET) something. Usually no goal-accomplishment happens with your efforts alone, but you need some help from others, or you need to meet somebody’s expectations, so that they would be in a position to help/serve you in return.

What you may GIVE/Deliver is anything such as a Service or Material or Labor or Money or a Confirmation / Approval / Acceptance / Signed Document. Take an example, your goal or objective is to-construct-a-house where you need to give specifications of rooms, flooring, roofing, doors, windows, etc. to the architect or Release funds/material to a contractor or send invitations to guests for your house-warming function. Sometimes you may not need to GIVE/Offer anything to anyone, e.g. you want to start writing a diary which is your initiative, and it doesn’t ask any GIVEs.

What you may GET/Receive is anything like a Service or Material or Labor or Money or a Confirmation / Approval / Acceptance / Signed Document. Taking the construction-of-house example, you need to GET a loan from a bank or receive the approved-plan-document from the Architect or Receive Goods and Services from Vendors like Contractor, Electrician, and Plumber, etc. Sometimes you may not need to Gain/Receive anything from anyone when you want to start writing a diary which is your initiative and assume you have a pen and notebook/diary with you.

So, at the end of this step you need to conclude “Do I have to Give/Offer something to someone to gain their help in accomplishing my goal?” If Yes, then list-out all the GIVEs and the recipients or beneficiaries. Similarly, you need to have a mere idea on “Am I Depending on Somebody?”, “Do I have to Gain/Receive Something from someone?” If Yes, then list-out all the GETs and the senders / approvers / vendors.

Remember, sometimes GIVEs and GETs are interdependent of each other. So you need to understand their relationship or dependency and add/delete the GIVEs and GETs accordingly. For example ‘GIVE Specifications’ and ‘GET Approved Architectural-plan’ to-and-from an Architect are interdependent so both are required.

Step-three – Set Milestones

When you hit a road for a long-trip, you depend on milestones to realize “Where I am?” “Am I in a right direction?” “How long it took to reach this place?” then you think to take decisions accordingly like “What is my next Milestone, and how long will it take?” “What time or amount of gas will I need to reach the destination?” “How much time do I have for Coffee or Lunch breaks before I reach the destination at the scheduled time?” Etc.

This also applies for reaching your personal goals too. There may be situations where you face unknown challenges, for which you need to plan new GIVEs or new GETs to complete the initial GIVEs or GETs or you want to expedite the remaining work and need a new estimate of how much money/time you need or You wish to take Go or No-Go decisions based on the outcomes or progress of work that you did complete already. So the Milestone gives you flexibility in decision making that allows you to make adjustments and move-on towards your goal in the right direction.

Taking the Construction-of-house example, you do not just go to any named bank and apply for loan. First you prefer to study different banks’ credit policies and conclude which one offers home-loans for lower interest rates, and then you would apply for a loan. Similarly, unless you have the loan-approval from your banker, you would not try engaging the Architect or Builder to GET their services. Here your first Milestone is “Identify a bank which is offering home-loan for lower interest rates” and the second Milestone is “Apply for Loan” and third is “Gain Approval from Banker” and fourth is “Engage the Architect” and so on.

At the end of this step, you would conclude “What are my good decision making points?” and then define your Milestones.

 Step-Four – Define Tasks/Activities

A Milestone tells you what you need to achieve, but it won’t suggest “what you need to perform?” because it is just an end-result of a group of tasks, similarly assigning resources to Milestones adds no value because each Milestone may need different people to perform its associated tasks, also you can’t tell the status of Milestone’s completion in %, for example, the status of your bank-loan-approval is either approved or not-approved but not 50% approved.

To address all the above mentioned, you need to define the tasks that allow you to complete a GIVE, GET or Milestone. An ideal task is a simple and short action-item which can be performed by an individual or a small team with one-go/session. The task definition is easy to start from a larger activity which you can further simplify into small tasks using the approach of a work-breakdown-structure (WBS) as shown below.

  1. GET: Home-loan from Bank
    1. Summary Task: Find a bank with a low interest rate
      1. Prepare a template to capture Home-loan features
      2. Visit Bank X for details
      3. Visit Bank Y for details
      4.  Visit Bank Z for details
      5. Consolidate the captured data and make a decision
      6. Milestone: Selection of Bank Completed
    2. Summary Task: Apply for Bank Loan
      1. Fill out the application
      2. Complete the checklist for supporting documents
      3. Meet the Banker
      4. Submit the loan application
      5. Milestone: Bank Loan applied successfully
    3. Summary Task: Complete post-approval activities
      1. Receive the approval/denial note/message from Banker
      2. Summary Task: In-case of denial, do the needful
      3. Meet the banker and find the gaps
      4. Additional documentation/guarantees
      5. Re-submit the loan-application
      6. Receive approval note from Banker
      7. Complete the post-approval documentation
      8. Collect Banker’s Cheque
      9. Milestone: Home Loan Received

Step-Five – Assign Work Hours, Resources and Duration to low-level tasks

As I mentioned in Step-four, we do not need to assign Work hours and Duration for GET, GIVE, Milestones and Summary-tasks, because those are just end-results of tasks that we perform, so we assign zero hours to work-hours, zero days for the duration. Anyway you do need to assign the resources to GIVE and GET but you have to document To-person (to whom you are delivering the GIVEs) and From-person (Who is delivering the GETs to you).

Whereas, the TASKS need these attributes, since we need to know how much effort is required to complete-each-task by an individual or team of resources (Work Hours), how long it takes (Duration) and who is going to perform it (Resources).

In a fixed-duration-of-task scenario, the difference between Work-hours and Duration is, a task may need few hours to complete, but it can be done in a window of few weeks duration. For example, the task “1.3.1 Receive Loan Approval Note from banker” (WBS – Step-four) takes an hour or two but Bank may take three weeks time to validation and send approval to you, so the work hours are three-hour max but Duration is 21 Days. Remember, one of your task may take 10 hours by one resource, but you need two individuals to work on it, then your effort estimation (work Hours) is 20 hours. Hence, the Duration helps to measure “How long it takes” and Work-hours helps to measure the Labor-cost.

The estimation of work-hours, duration and resources, allows you to estimate the labor-cost too. Take an example, your architect may take 40 hours to complete the architectural-plan, and he/she charges $150 per hour, so the estimated cost would be around $6000. Your material cost depends on the measurements and market price based on quality/brand.

At the end of this step, you might prefer to consolidate the Duration, Work Hours and Cost for each Milestone, GIVE and GET.

Step-six – Set Start and End Dates

The next step is to translate the Duration into earliest start and finish dates of each task. The following few techniques may help you for completing the overall job in the least possible time.

As you know “when to start working on your goal/objective/plan, you would assign the Start-date to the first low-level task of your WBS accordingly.

Assign the task number (e.g. 1.1.1 in WBS) for all the tasks and arrange the tasks in logical-sequence through assigning Predecessors (Prior Task: What task(s) must be completed before this task) and Successors (Subsequent Task: What task(s) must start after completing this task). Remember you do not need to assign Predecessor to the first task of your WBS; similarly, your last task in WBS doesn’t need Successor. For example

1.1 Summary Task: Find a bank with a low interest rate

1.1.1. Prepare a template to capture Banker’s details

1.1.2. Visit Bank X for details

1.1.3. Visit Bank Y for details

1.1.4. Visit Bank Z for details

1.1.5. Consolidate the captured data and make a decision

1.1.6. Milestone: ‘Selection of Bank’ Completed

Assume above WBS is your entire-plan, i.e. “1.1.Find a bank with a low interest rate” (Just ignore the house-construction example for time-being) and “1.1.1. Prepare a template to capture Banker’s details” is your first task of your WBS so it doesn’t need Predecessor, because there is no task to complete before this task, similarly “1.1.6. Milestone: ‘Selection of Bank’ Completed” doesn’t need Successor because it is the last activity of your WBS.

The Predecessor for tasks 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and 1.1.4 is 1.1.1 and the Successor is 1.1.5. It is obvious that the predecessors for 1.1.5 are 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and 1.1.4. The Successor for 1.1.5 is 1.1.6 and the Predecessor for 1.1.6 is 1.1.5.

Now you have the Predecessors and Successors for all your tasks, so you are ready to put the tasks in sequence/order and assign Start and End Dates.

  1. The Start Date of 1.1.1 is = your Initial Start Date of the Plan; Finish date of 1.1.1 is = its ‘Start Date’ + ‘Duration in Days’.
  2. Find the tasks that you can start in-parallel (Start-to-start) e.g. 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and 1.1.4 can perform one time, so the Start and End dates for these tasks are same. So the Start Date of 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and 1.1.4 = Finish date of its Predecessor, i.e. 1.1.1 and Finish date of 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and 1.1.4 = its ‘Start Date’ + ‘Duration in days’.
  3. Find the tasks that you have to finish before starting the successor task (Finish-to-start) e.g., unless you finish 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and 1.1.4 you can’t start 1.1.5, so the start date of 1.1.5 is = finish date of its Predecessor, i.e. 1.1.2, 1.1.3 and 1.1.4 and finish date of 1.1.5 is = its ‘Start Date’ + ‘Duration in days’.
  4. Find the tasks that you need to finish at one time (Finish-to-finish) e.g. 1.1.5 and 1.1.6 should be complete at one time. As 1.1.6 is a Milestone, so the duration is zero days, so the start and end dates for 1.1.6 is = finish date of 1.1.5.

Sometimes, you will be on-hold due to the wait-periods for starting the next task. You have applied for a bank loan and need to wait for bank approval, or you poured the concrete in roof-frame and must wait until it gets dry. These wait periods are called FLOATS or SLACKS that you may utilize for scheduling non-critical or non-dependent activities, so that you can better utilize the gaps and continue your efforts without any time lags.

When the finish date is fixed and the available time to complete the tasks-to-be-completed is limited, you can apply the technique (CRASHING or FAST-TRACKING) of scheduling the tasks backward from Finish dates to Start Dates and allocate more resources or increase the work hours of the day (Multiple Shifts) or perform the tasks in parallel, if possible. Anyway you can’t always apply this technique of “assigning more resources to finish the task in less duration”, because we know, two Turkeys together can’t hatch the egg in 14 days.

Similarly, when you have higher slack time of less non-critical activities, you would prefer to reduce the resources/labor and complete the given tasks without delaying the start date of Successor or finish date of an overall project.

Step-seven – Conclude your plan

At a conclusion, you may prefer to add few Milestones, Activities and Tasks for ensuring the following items were taken care of for more effective planning.

 Resource and Vendor Planning:

A Resource can be either a skilled person or material or funds. The Vendor is your contractor or supplier who accepted on agreeable terms and conditions to provide the goods or services.  If you plan to make available a ‘right skilled person’, ‘well specified material/goods’ and ‘sufficient funds at the right time and at the right place’ this will always help you to deliver your end-product with fewer hassles. Choose/Select your recourses carefully after you plan “What skills are required for the team in delivering the work-products and when do I need them?”, “What are the quality measurements / specifications for the material / goods and when I do need them?” and “When do I mobilize or release the funds for the specified work?” etc. While you are engaging resources, draft a detailed agreement or set the expectations for your vendor & team members and have their commitment or agreement in writing.

Risk Planning:

Have a walk-through of your plan and see what tasks may stop or trouble you to complete at the right time and/or within the estimated cost. You have to prepare yourself to mitigate these risks before they impact your schedule, cost and quality. The techniques and strategies to mitigate the risks may vary from task to task. Sometimes you have a backup plan in-case your initial approach fails, or you may keep some contingency amount in-case any task take additional time/cost/material  or you may go for expert advice or prefer to assign a task to a vendor, who has the skills to manage the given risk”.

Planning for Change:

Change is inevitable in this practical world. A change may takes place at any stage of your goal-attainment. Instead of avoiding or ignoring the change, you better validate whether it is realistic, achievable and measurable and incorporate it in your plan. A change could increase or decrease your efforts and cost, but it helps you to transform from current state to desired state. As part of addressing the change, you would consider revisiting the above Steps 1-6 and add or remove the necessary GIVEs, GETs, Milestones and tasks accordingly.

Quality/Performance Planning:

Reaching a Goal at a scheduled time within estimated budget is very important but the quality of the end-products from your GIVEs, GETs and Milestones are also equally important. Once you identified all the GIVEs, propose a meeting with recipients/beneficiaries and understand and document their expectations from your deliverables. Similarly set the expectations to senders / dispatchers / approvers / vendors for all the GETs. While you are working on Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), the expectations from GIVEs and GETs have to be successfully mapped into low-level tasks. The Verification / Assessment / Audit / Approval of work-products should be planned before you conclude the Milestones.

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