Getting Past the Fear of Project Plans

Several years ago, before I had any training as a project manager, a manager asked me to write a project plan for an initiative I was leading.  I still remember how overwhelmed I felt.  Years and hundreds of project plans later, I still have a little fear writing new project plans, but training and experience have helped alleviate most of my anxiety.

I can’t guarantee the tips and techniques discussed in this paper will eliminate your fears of writing a project plan.  I hope, however, that it does offer a few things to remember next time you’re asked to write a project plan.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll primarily focus on the term project plan.  However, the concepts discussed should help with any form of project or business writing.

In order to first understand what information goes into a project plan, we must first define project plan and outline its uses.  The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) and other business sources basically define project plans as all of the documentation used during project approvals and as the primary reference document throughout a project.  Typically, project plans clarify project scope, schedule and budget.

I’ll first outline the top 10 tips for writing a project plan.  I’ll then explain why these tips are important and elaborate on various techniques based on each tip.  The end of the paper contains an interview with an experienced project manager and former college professor.

Top 10 Tips for Writing Project Plans

  1. Begin with an Outline
  2. Know Your Audience
  3. Write a Concise Scope
  4. Be Honest About Risks
  5. Explain the Implementation Plan
  6. Write Your Project Goals
  7. Use Industry Specific Terms Wisely
  8. Communicate the Communication Plan
  9. Use Graphics with Text

10. Complete a Final Review

Begin with an Outline 

Why it’s important

I will admit I’m not one of those people who always have a plan when I start writing.  I’ll also admit there are many times when I’ve regretted not having plan.  Let’s face it. There are times when you need to consider how you want the document to flow.  Take time to reflect on how people will read and make sense of the information you’re presenting.

As the writer of the project plan, it’s your job to make sure people can find the information they need to approve or reference.  Creating an outline before writing and preparing documents can help ensure your layout is coherent and logical.

Techniques for Creating an Outline

I keep a simple spreadsheet of all the potential documents that could be included in my project plan.  Each project is different so I may not use all documents listed in my spreadsheet.  However, this simple trick is a good reference to remind me what could be included in my plan.

Some companies require certain documents in your project plan in order to gain approval and funding.  Make sure you know what those documents are and include them in your outline.

If the outline is only for your use in developing your project plan, it doesn’t need to be formal, but I think it’s a good idea to have another person review the outline to make sure the structure is sound and you’ve covered your bases.

Below the reference section, you’ll see an example of a simple outline I’ve used for my project plans.

References

gantthead.com – Project Plan Project Definition - http://www.gantthead.com/deliverables/Project-Plan-Definition.html

inc.com – How to Write a Business Plan Outline – http://www.inc.com/guides/201104/how-to-write-a-business-plan-outline.html

Example of a Project Plan Outline

1)   Project Scope (required)

a)    Executive Summary

b)   Needs Analysis

c)    Audience Identification

d)   Success Metrics

2)   Product Summary

3)   Budget Reports

a)    Cash Flow Report (required)

b)   Contracts

i)     Bids

ii)    Signed Contracts

4)   Intellectual Property Assessment (required)

5)   Risk Management Plan

a)    Mitigation Plan

6)   Communication Plan

7)   Implementation Plan

a)    Work Breakdown Structure

b)   Detailed Schedule

Know Your Audience

Why it’s important

Pretend for a moment you’re a sports writer for a newspaper in a major city.  Your assignment is to write multiple opinion articles each week.  Now imagine that during your first week you choose to write all of your articles about sports teams from different cities.  While your opinions might be newsworthy, there is little chance that the majority of your readers will like your articles because they don’t focus on their local interests.

Writing a project plan is not so different from writing public interest articles.  Your audience wants to know information that applies to them.

Most new projects need approvals from decision makers within an organization.  It’s the job of the project plan writer to make sure information contained in the project plan will gain the approval of stakeholders and executives.  The plan also needs to include details that will be useful for the project team.

Techniques for Knowing Your Audience

Identify who is going to read the project plan and why they’re going to read it.  A stakeholder or manager may want to know the details, while executive leaders only want a brief summary.  Either way, identify the audience for each section of the project plan and write to that audience.

If your company doesn’t use a template or project management tool, divide the document into sections.  Start with the executive summary or a brief overview of the project so management doesn’t have to sift through details to get needed information.   Clearly label each section so those seeking specific information can find exactly what they’re looking for quickly.

References

University of Maryland Online Guide to Writing and Research – Targeting Your Audiencehttp://www.umuc.edu/writingcenter/onlineguide/chapter2-04.cfm

plainlanguage.gov – Identify and Write for Your Audience – http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuidelines/audId.cfm

Write a Concise Scope

Why it’s important

The managers and directors in your organization are busy people whose calendars resemble a multicolored haystack.  They don’t have time to read all of the adjectives you could use to describe the project.  Therefore it’s critical to ensure managers can understand the project’s scope without scanning multiple pages.

The PMBOK describes the scope as the products or services along with associated outcomes of the project.  Generally management and stakeholders want to know how your project is going to benefit the organization.  This information is critical to verify your project aligns with the direction of the business.  Executives want the scope in a concise format in order to make sound decisions quickly.  The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) website suggests that concise writing doesn’t always have fewer words but uses strong words.

Techniques for Concise Writing

Contemplate writing your scope by listing your products or services in a bulleted list.  Then identify how each product or service will impact the organization.  This is a great starting point to writing a concise scoping document.

Once you develop a list, put key points in a logical format and begin filling in the blanks.  Don’t worry as much about size as content.  If you’re confident you’ve included all deliverables, then your scope is probably long enough.      

After you’ve written your project scope, consider these steps:

  1. Identify filler words and determine if they can be removed.
  2. Look for weak words that can be replaced by stronger words.
  3. Verify you’re using words applicable to your industry.
  4. Combine sentences where possible.
  5. Start from step one again and repeat as needed.

References

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) – Conciseness – https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/572/01/

The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin – Clear, Concise, Sentences – http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/ClearConciseSentences.html

PROJECT Magazine – Writing a Scope Statement – http://www.projectmagazine.com/planning/48-scope/50-writing-a-scope-statement

Be Honest About Risks

Why it’s important

Your employer deserves to know what could go wrong during your project.  By identifying and reporting risks early, you’re giving your organization more time to find a solution to mitigate potential problems.  Every project plan should have a section dedicated to risks and their potential impacts.  Each risk should be an honest assessment and contain facts to determine liability.  By attempting to cover up risks, you’re putting yourself, your project team and your company in jeopardy

Techniques for Being Honest About Risks

Obviously the fundamental task here is to identify risks and their potential impact.  Then determine if and how each risk can be avoided.  This is best accomplished in a project team setting where everyone has input.

Once you’ve completed a risk analysis, begin writing the risk assessment.  Like your scope document, determine the key points that need to be addressed and write a concise description including costs and schedule impact.  You’re not expected to know everything that could go wrong on a project, but you should attempt to identify as much as possible.

Sometimes risk assessment can be helpful in getting approval and support for your project.  For example, I manage a project each year to deliver Christmas gifts to all employees.  By identifying the impacts of certain risks, I can show how the negative impact will delay delivery.  Knowing the gifts need to be delivered before Christmas helps the project team stay motivated.

The key to writing about risks is to be direct and upfront.  Don’t conceal information in your writing.  If you think you don’t have risks in your project, you’re probably wrong. You need to complete a risk analysis.  If something does occur during the project, make sure to effectively and honestly communicate the implication to all stakeholders.  Also include how the problem will be resolved.

References

PMI White Paper – Real-world Risk Management – http://www.pmi.org/~/media/PDF/Business-Solutions/Risk%20Management_FINAL.ashx

Oregon State University – Fundamentals for Establishing a Risk Communication Program – http://web.engr.oregonstate.edu/~hambydm/papers/ng.pdf

Explain the Implementation Plan

Why it’s important

Stakeholders and executives need to understand how the project is going to be executed from start to finish.  An implementation plan is not a detailed schedule or a work breakdown structure.  Instead, an implementation plan is list of key milestones with associated resources.  This high-level document reassures management that you know how to complete your project on schedule.

This document is also extremely useful as you manage the project.  The more complex a project is, the harder it is to track each project task.  As a project manager or leader, it’s much easier to manage projects based on milestone dates rather than tasks.

Techniques for Explaining the Implement Plan

To write a good project plan, it’s critical to understand a final delivery date for your products or services.  Once you identify a final delivery date, it becomes a lot easier to know when certain tasks need to be complete.  Remember to consider weekends, holidays, and time-off when determining delivery or handoff dates.

Once you have a list of milestones you want to include in your implementation plan, you’re ready to write.  Consider having a header on the plan that includes the project name, the project objective, and final delivery date.  Then write the details for each milestone by creating a milestone name or brief description—associate other information like delivery date, total hours and key resource.  Make sure your milestones are brief but explain the assignment.

References

eHow.com – How to Create a Project an Implementation Planhttp://www.ehow.com/how_5150738_create-implementation-plan.html

lean.org – Example of a Project Implementation Plan -

http://www.lean.org/dm_corner_implementation_plan.pdf

Write Your Project Goals

Why it’s important

I worked as a logistics operations manager at one point in my career.  One of the teams I managed wanted to make some changes to day-to-day operations in an effort to be more efficient.  We wrote the goal on a whiteboard that was in plain sight.  After their shift each day we would meet to review their stats to see if they were meeting their goals.

Every day the team was excited to see if their process change was working.  After about week, the team met its goal.  We celebrated our success and wrote a new goal and continued to improve.

Through this process I learned a valuable lesson: by identifying project goals your team will know where to focus its attention.

Coming in under budget and on schedule is an obvious objective and too general for your goal.  Think deeper.  The goals are in your head. Make sure you put them on paper.  Team goals should be specific, measurable, realistic and sharable.

Techniques for Writing Your Project Goals

Have a meeting or send an email request for stakeholders, team members and leadership to identify their ideas of a successful project.  Once you have a comprehensive list, identify common trends in their ideas.  Look for key power words to include in your success statement.

Usually focusing on a few key success factors is plenty.  Don’t overwhelm the team by setting too many goals.

Write down a short concise list of goals then compare the list against your company’s mission statement, vision or objectives.  Try to set goals that closely align with what your organization is trying to accomplish.

It’s generally a good rule to put your goals toward the front of your documents so management recognizes what the project will ultimately accomplish and how it will benefit the organization.

References

Toolbox.com – Identifying Project Goals & Objectivehttp://it.toolbox.com/blogs/enterprise-solutions/identifying-project-goals-objectives-25023

Woldbank.org – Clarifying Project Goals, Objectives, and Information Needshttp://siteresources.worldbank.org/NUTRITION/Resources/Tool8-chap2.pdf

MyManagementGuide.com – How to Set and Achieve Goals of a Project – http://www.mymanagementguide.com/five-essential-tips-for-managing-project-goals-how-to-set-and-achieve-goals-of-project/

Use Industry Terms and Keywords

Why it’s important

I worked in the health care industry for several years and had the chance to work in an operating room on numerous occasions.  Operating rooms have a completely different language than the rest of the world.  I remember the first time I heard the word “stat.”  This term is very specific to medicine and is an informal way of saying immediately.  If I were to use this term in my role as a publication and media project manager, I would probably get more than one unusual look.  So, I don’t use it.  However, I do try to use terms that are specific to my current role, if they’re going to be understood by everyone.

Using terms and keywords for your industry tells others that you know your niche.  It also helps you connect with co-workers.  However, you don’t want to use terms managers or stakeholders don’t understand.  Analyze your audience and make sure the industry terms you use will be understood.

Since working in the operating room, I’ve noticed that every industry has its own language and unwritten dictionary.  Knowing the language of your industry will help in all aspects of your communication.

Techniques for Using Industry Terms and Keywords

First, you need to learn the terms and keywords if they’re not already part of your vocabulary.  Consider doing a Web search on terms within your industry.  For example, just try searching for project management terms.  You’ll get plenty search results that could help increase your overall lexis.

Another way to learn keywords is to listen to others.  If you’re leading a construction project and a contractor keeps using a certain unfamiliar word during a planning meeting, write down the word and search to find its meaning when you’re back at your desk.  Thanks to Internet search engines, finding the meaning to a word is easy.

Before using any word for any type of writing, make sure you clearly understand the definition and tense.  Most importantly make sure these terms don’t create unreadable and confusing jargon. Review your project plans and look for industry specific terms and decide if they’re going to be understood without a dictionary.

References

Search Engine Guide – How to Find Keywords in a Specialized Industry – http://www.searchengineguide.com/mike-moran/how-do-you-find-keywords-in-a-specialize.php

Trellian – Industry Keywords – http://www.keyworddiscovery.com/keyword-directory.html

PR Newswire – 5 Ways to Fight Client Jargon – http://blog.prnewswire.com/2012/03/23/5-ways-to-fight-client-jargon/ 

Communicate the Communication Plan

Why it’s important

Your executives need to know the communication channels you’ll use to complete a successful project.  Communication failures are currently identified as one of the biggest problems in all organizations.  Teams who don’t identify the rules and strategy of communication could end up costing the company money and falling behind schedule.

A communication plan identifies all written, verbal and electronic communication methods.  Some organizations spend millions of dollars to purchase project management tools that offer electronic communication technology and collaboration space.  These tools are great when used correctly.  However, communication often happens outside of these tools via phone and email.  Communication outside your standard project management tools can create problems when information for the entire team isn’t disseminated properly.

Writing the communication methods in your project plan can help team members understand the media vehicles your team will use throughout the project.  Make sure you write the communication plan clearly and identify the strategy for verbal, written and electronic communication.

Techniques for Writing a Communication Plan

Identify all areas of communication that are expected to happen during your project.  Find the tools or methods for each form of communication.  Make sure you have consensus among your project team and stress the importance of proper communication.

When applicable use your communication department as a consultant to review your ideas and give advice on techniques specific to your company.

When writing the actual communication plan, consider summarizing the plan into different sections.  For example, you could have a separate section for verbal, written and electronic.  Or you could explain how communication threads will happen between team members, stakeholders, vendors, the public, and so forth.

If you’re using a communication or project management tool that doesn’t meet all of your needs, remember to address what tools will be used in its place.

Specify any branding, marketing, letterhead or logos you’re going to use.  Consider adding images to your communication plan so management is aware of their use and meaning.

References

How to Develop Communication Planshttp://www.hieran.com/comet/howto.html

Dave Fleet – How to Write a Good Communication Plan – http://davefleet.com/2008/05/how-to-write-a-good-communications-plan-part-1-an-overview/

Nancy Rathburn Scott – How to Write a Corporate Communication Plan – http://www.nancyscott.com/page50/page32/page32.html

Use Graphics with Text

Why it’s important

Simply spoken, people like visuals.  They can provide a quick reference to how something is going to work or look in the end.

In my current job we create a lot of product prototypes before starting any official project work.  These prototypes are useful for the sponsor to make decisions.  Seeing an example of the finished product can help executives make decisions about your project.

Another example of using graphics might be based more around your project processes.  Properly designed PERT diagrams, Gantt charts, and flowcharts will provide readers a visual representation of how project work is going to be completed on schedule.

Techniques for Using Graphics with Text

If you’re presenting a prototype or visual of the finished product, take the time to make it look exceptional and accurate.  Don’t allow your management to be skeptical about the money and support they’re giving your project.  If you can’t design the graphic well, request help from someone with a design background.

By adding graphics to a document, you’re losing valuable white space for text.  This makes it extremely important to use your document real estate carefully.  Be  clear, concise and selective about word choice.  If the text is too long, it may mean that the process step is actually more than one step.  Also remember to always use action words to describe process procedures.

References

Graphics.com – Visualizing Project Plans – http://www.graphics.com/modules.php?name=Sections&op=viewarticle&artid=507

eDocs.com – Developing and Designing Flowchartshttp://documentationprocess.com/DevelopandDesignFlows

Complete a Final Review

Why it’s important

I once had a chance to work with a talented supply chain director named Richard.  When it came time to hire a new vice president over logistics, I thought he would get the job because of his knowledge and work ethic.  He applied but was rejected.  A few months later, I heard one person on the hiring committee say, “Richard probably would have gotten the job if he would learn to use spell-check.”  Poor spelling and editing cost this man a major promotion.

While you may not receive a final grade from anyone regarding the writing in your project plan, your co-workers and managers will notice your mistakes.  Your document needs to accurately convey project information.

Good writing skills are important to your organizations leaders.  Exceptional writing in your project documents will help managers and team members feel confident in your communication skills and abilities managing the project.

Techniques for Reviewing

Technical writing is different than writing emails, research papers or fictional stories.  While it’s important to look for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, technical writing also requires you to review your paper for consistency.

When editing project documents look for uniformity in terminology, costs, dates and product information.

After editing the document, consider walking away from it for a while and then re-reading from the reader’s perspective.  When editing, validate your work by ensuring you’re conveying intended objectives and providing adequate information.  Putting on another set of eyes is a useful exercise.

I would also recommend having another individual review and edit your documents before final submission.  No one is perfect.  Trust your editing to someone who will provide feedback and tell you about mistakes.

Like I said earlier about the scope document, review it until you stop making changes.  If you seem to be making major changes each time you edit, perhaps something is wrong with the overall message and you need to consider a rewrite.  This may take more time, but it will help you rest easy after you submit or present the project plan.

References

raylcommunications.com – Why is Good Writing so Important in the Business World? – http://www.raylcommunications.com/BusWriteESL-SECTION_1.pdf

Wordnerds.com – Document Editing – Tips for More Effective Business Documents – http://www.wordnerds.com.au/2012/06/document-editing-–-tips-for-more-effective-business-documents/

Yahoo Business – Business Writing Tips for Editing Business Communications – http://voices.yahoo.com/business-writing-tips-editing-business-communications-2364660.html

Notes from an Interview with an Expert

I interviewed Rich Carlson.  Carlson is a lead project manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  He has been working in project management for over 15years.  He has held numerous project management positions and taught business courses at Davenport University.

Q&A

Question: Why is the project plan an important component of project management?

Answer: To me, the project plan is the foundation and the most important part of a project. Without a solid project plan, you’re starting off the project in a hole and it’s exponentially harder to manage a project without one.

Question: As a person who reviews and approves projects, what content or components do you look for in a project plan or scoping document?

Answer: I’ve always followed the mantra that if a project plan is complete and accurate, anybody could read the project plan and understand the following points of the project:

  • What is going to be produced/delivered by the project?
  • Who is our customer/audience/consumer of the deliverables?
  • What are the estimated costs of the project?
  • What are the key milestones of the project?
  • Who are the key project team members and what are their high-level responsibilities?
  • What are the known risks associated with the project? What are the contingency plans to deal with these risks?

Question: How do you balance providing enough detail and still remain concise with the information in the plan?

Answer: This is always a tough one. As a project manager, I strived to look at a project from every project team member’s points of view. I wanted to make sure all of the key groups had a seat at the project table and their needs were being met.  By doing this, I was privy to a lot of additional project-related information that would fall outside the scope of a project plan.

By sticking to the key points I identified above, I was able to stay out of the weeds and focus on the key project elements. Provide just enough information to answer the questions without getting into too much detail.

It also depends on who will be reviewing the project plans. Some upper management I’ve worked for wanted one- to two-page project plans with only the high-level detail included. They wanted to make sure all groups were on board with the project, and they let us hammer out the details.  Other executives wanted extremely detailed project plans because they were micromanagers. They didn’t trust the project teams, or they were detail freaks.

Understanding the needs of your audience is critical before starting any project plan.

Question: How should a project manager address potential risks in the project plan documents?

Answer: Any time I identified a risk in a project plan, I discussed it by identifying the following:

  • What is the probability of the risk occurring?
  • What is the level impact on the project if the risk occurs?
  • What are the specific impacts to the project if a risk occurs?
  • Are there steps that can be taken to mitigate a particular risk?  What are the costs associated with these steps?  If you have a high probability/high impact risk, spending a few extra dollars to mitigate the risk is a no-brainer. Spending a ton of effort/budget on a low probability/low impact risk is wasteful and inefficient.
  • What are the contingency plans available if the risk occurs? Who are the decision makers as to which contingency plan will be executed if needed?

Understanding these items is critical to managing any project. If you have a high probability/high impact risk, you’d better have your contingency plans in place and ready to go as soon as the project starts. Conversely, if you have a low probability/low impact risk, you should keep an eye on it but not lose any sleep over it.

Question: What tips would you give a person creating a project plan for the first time?

Answer: Writing a project plan oftentimes takes a lot of legwork by the project manager. He/she needs to look at their project from a high level – understanding how all of the different individuals, groups, systems, budgets and schedules fit together to form the project.  They need to understand what each member of the project team needs to do his/her job.  They also need to understand the relationships between the different groups contributing to the project.

A good project manager will be able to envision the project from start to finish, identify risks that could derail the project, understand problem areas that need to be closely monitored, and recognize the role of each project team member.

Once all that is understood, you then condense that information into the key points that must be communicated for a project to be understood by the intended audience.

To me, writing the project plan is easy – the hard part is making sure I cover all my bases in gathering the information and making sure I’ve accounted for all the project team members and their groups.  Once I feel comfortable with my project and all its facets, writing the plan is a snap.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Getting Past the Fear of Project Plans

  1. Hi would you mind stating which blog platform you’re working with? I’m planning to
    start my own blog soon but I’m having a difficult time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique.
    P.S Sorry for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

    • caseycm

      Not sure why, but I never saw your response. I apologize for the delay in my reply. I was using WordPress to write this blog.

  2. Wonderful article! This provided detailed information about project management and how to make use of it. Moreover, I have seen a growing demand for Project management certified professionals. With the help of training providers like http://www.pmstudy.com/, I was able to prepare for my PMP exam in an efficient manner.

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