How to make a successful project plan

How are we going to get to where we want to be?  How do we create a project plan to achieve our goals?

How Project Plan - The Right Questions

Once you have developed your strategic framework it is much easier to make a successful project plan. So let us recap on how we bring together the strategic planning: at the beginning we identified ‘where’; the beginning and the end of the journey.  We defined success in the ‘what’ so that we definitely know when we have arrived, and we have also established ‘why’ we are setting off in the first place.  The where, what and why provides us with the strategic framing for our project plan.  Now we need to choose a route and also work out what we are going to take with us; what resources we will need.  This is where we come on to the ‘how’, the method by which we achieve the mission; the goals and activities that measure our progress towards our desired outcome.  Combined with answering the ‘when’, ‘who’ and ‘which’ we can come up with the plan we need to employ in order to achieve the overall vision and mission.

Let us put this all together with the aid of a story.

Planning to achieve a life goal

I mentioned previously the expedition to Greenland that I undertook with my wife to make some first ascents of a group of mountains on the east coast.  For the planning of the expedition we used all we information we had at our disposal, although the maps and aerial photos showed very little in the way of real detail.  But these coupled with some knowledge gleaned from an expert on the area meant that we were able to identify a way to approach the hills, find a likely spot to make a base camp and select some peaks that we could attempt while we were out there.  These peaks each became a goal in their own right and we now had the outline of a plan.

Once out in Greenland we were able to confirm physically the scalable peaks in the area and work out a more detailed climbing programme that suited our available time, our ability, and the weather.  This itinerary was designed to build towards going up the largest of the hills in the area.  I had spotted the peak on the photo back in the UK; but now that I could see the mountain in three-dimensions I was able to identify some potential routes to get to the top. I knew these could be explored yet further when we got close enough to ‘rub our noses up against it’.

Greenland Project Plan - The Right Questions

From plan to reality

From what I had observed I could see that the climb would break down into several natural stages: the approach to the mountain, a traverse of a plateau, the main climb and achieving the summit, and then recovering back to our camp.  Each stage had a planned duration and had milestones we set and measured our progress against. This all helped to keep us on schedule.

By the time we were in striking distance of the summit we were tired, the going was hard and the temperature had dropped significantly.  At this point the measure of progress reduced from milestones to ‘I will take ten more steps and then rest’.

“How do you eat an Elephant? In lots of very small pieces.”  Anon

This was how we achieved our aim and how I fulfilled my dream: one little step at a time.  I am happy to say we got there and back again safely and during our two weeks in that region of Greenland we ‘bagged’ six first ascents.  It was a truly successful expedition.

The key to planning success

This story holds the key to planning any great venture.  A dream powered by passion turns into a mission.  We then start to plan ‘how’ we are going to achieve that mission and break it down into goals.  Each of these goals is further broken down into smaller stages; milestones are set and the nearest steps are planned in the greatest detail.

This is an important point: the detail of the project plan or strategy depends on our proximity to the goal. If we start with too much detail – for events too far in the future – we will find the situation will inevitably have changed. By the time we get there, the detail is unlikely to work out.  Therefore it is better to remain flexible and adapt. As new information comes to light, and as we get closer, we can then plan in ever greater detail.

Breaking the plan down

It is like breaking down a landscape into the near, middle and far distance.  When we look out from our starting point we can naturally see the near ground with more clarity. We may even be able to identify the exact path we want to take.  As we strain our eyes towards the horizon we cannot hope to have the same level of detail. So we have to keep our long term plans broader in scope.

The near, middle and far could be measures of proximity, as they were for me in Greenland. But they could also be time-horizons such as 6 months, 2 years and 5 years for a business plan.  We will look at this a little more under ‘when’ and timing.

Planning to several stated horizons, with varying levels of detail, helps us to strategize comprehensively. It helps to maintain plans that are both simple and flexible.  With our goal in mind, there maybe two or three routes that we could use to get there.  We choose the best course and then we plan for this strategy to the required level of detail.

The most important question in a project plan

The amount of detail we need is dependent upon the task. But, what is essential, is that we have broken down our goal to the extent we know exactly what to do next.  We need to be able to answer the question: “what is the one most effective thing that I can do right now to effectively take me towards my goal?”.

In this way, we can make the next few steps very clear and achievable; even if the overall goal seems daunting.  If we fail to break things down properly then our more audacious goals will evade us. We know exactly what we need to do next. That is where the detail lies.

“Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.”  Military saying

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6 thoughts on “How to make a successful project plan

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