Cheat Sheet: Creating a Project Plan

Project Management is the discipline of planning, organising, and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of a specified project goal. In all honesty, Project Management often can sound a lot more complicated than it actually is. We are here to share a few of our lighter-touch tips to help you get started planning a project.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” – Antione de Saint-Exupery

Planning is an everyday activity. We all do it. The process is natural and thus for the most part goes unnoticed. We buy food in advance of cooking, having to remember which ingredients we need while running round the supermarket, checking use-by dates to see if we’ll be able to stock up ahead without food spoiling, assessing weights and portion sizes, and trying to find the best prices for similar products.

You don’t have to make a project plan complicated, simply think of it as an extension of the type of planning you normally do, written down clearly so that everyone shares your knowledge and any associated tasks, and can work to the schedule you set out for completion. It needs to be a map, one that is clear enough for anyone to follow and reach the end destination.

We’re going to start by offering some of our top project planning tips before we launch into a more in-depth look at what to include in a simple project plan.


1)      Have a clear goal from the beginning.

There is no beating around the bush here, you absolutely must have a clearly defined goal that you are working toward at the beginning of your project planning journey. You need to know what you want to achieve, when you want to achieve it, and what resources you will have access to, in order to do so.

2)      Involve the right people.

Projects generally require a Project Sponsor and a Project Manager. The Sponsor is responsible for the project, they need to check that it is achieving value for money and will achieve the aims it was created to. The Manager runs the project on a day-to-day basis. This doesn’t mean that they undertake every action, often a large part of their role is to delegate and supervise, but it does mean that one person will have an in-depth understanding of every aspect of the project.

For example, the Project Manager will know when one missed deadline might impact upon another and can plan and re-arrange the project to ensure that the end result will still be achieved on time. The Project Sponsor needs to challenge and hold the Project Manager to account and ask the detail how the project will still be achieved if a deadline has been exceeded.

It is very important that you agree how much responsibility and authority rests with the Project Sponsor and Project Manager – everyone needs to be clear what decisions they can make in order to push the project forward.

Drafting a Project Plan in isolation can be extremely difficult as you may not know exactly what each action will involve and how long it will take. You might miss a key action or task that will impact on timescales when drafting, with the knock-on effect of involving a lot of re-working the plan to amend it after. Speak to colleagues at an early stage, involve them in the process and save yourself future headaches, whilst also guaranteeing that they are on-board with your goals and willing to deliver on their actions.

3)      Manage expectations.

From the outset, you need to be realistic about what is possible. Can you deliver by the date specified? Is it technically possible with the resources you have been allocated? When you begin to plan your project you need to have an initial idea about the costings, timescales, and resources involved in achieving it. It is usually best to allow some wriggle room too, as overspending is an issue that escalates rapidly if you’re running late and have to pay additional fees to ship goods faster, or buy in additional hours to cover last minute work.

4)      Use tools and technology appropriately.

Technology can make the management task a lot easier by automating certain processes, but don’t ever allow yourself to become a slave to the machine. Project Management software can be costly, especially when staff require additional training to come to grips with it. The choice to buy-in technology is yours, but ask yourself whether the scale of the project justifies spending the time and money on it when you could create a simpler in-house solution.

In terms of communications and documentation, our usual advice applies here – keep it simple! If you can meet face-to-face to discuss an issue this is often the best way to achieve consensus, but it can be time consuming. Think about simplifying any documents to ensure that they can be swiftly read and understood. For example, if you are presenting various options for a new IT product, try to set out the pros and cons as a table, allowing a side-by-side comparison of costs, benefits, features, training requirements, and so on. Providing a short and easily digestible document can save everyone time as it allows you to drill down into what is important as you set out the options clearly for others and if you provide this before a short face-to-face meeting everyone is armed with the information they need to discuss the merits of each option quickly and reach a consensus.


Creating a Project Plan

The first thing we’d recommend you do when planning your project is to come up with a clearly defined goal that everyone can understand and buy into. Once you know what you need to achieve you can start to brainstorm the various activities you’ll need to break the project down into in order to achieve it.

For example, you felt absolutely inspired after watching a documentary about the Himalayas and decided that you must go within the next year and trek the Annapurna Circuit. It is something you’ve always wanted to do and you don’t want to put it off any longer. So where do you start?

Try brainstorming the main actions you think you’ll need to take to achieve your goal. This can be as simple as the spider diagram below which covers our first thoughts about actions (and possible issues) for our example.

Project Plan Example

Once you know exactly what you want your project to achieve, and have an idea of the main actions necessary to reach that end point, you then need to start to work backwards. With the end date in mind, you then start to work out when each action needs to be taken so that you meet that date, some actions rely upon others and so need to be placed in order, others can be taken at any point. To continue with our example, actions you’d want to take to get to trek the Annapurna Circuit include:

  • Research trek providers for price, quality, availability
  • Book trek
  • Book flights (allow one day before trek starts and two days after)
  • Book additional transport (to and from airport)
  • Book airport parking
  • Book time off work
  • Pay off balance of flights and trek
  • Book kennel for the dog
  • Buy equipment
  • Increase fitness levels
  • See doctor for any travel medication/advice
  • Pack

These obviously aren’t listed in the correct order, unless you have a really flexible and easy going boss, you’d probably need to book time off work before you went ahead and booked your holiday. One of the easiest ways to set out these actions in a logical order to set out your plan and start thinking about timings is to create a Gantt chart for your Project Plan. A Gantt Chart shows activities against time, so that you can see at a glance when an action needs to happen and how long it should take.

Microsoft Excel does have a few examples among their templates, (see screen shot below for one I found when I searched for a “project plan”), which you can then adapt to suit your purposes. Otherwise, you can draw up your own simple version as I have done in my example which continues below.

Gantt Project Plan Example

An easy way to get started is to begin listing your actions and assigning rough dates to them. So, in the image below, you can see that I have listed my actions and have blocked out when the action should be taking place on a simple monthly basis. These actions still aren’t in order, but laying them out like this allows me to see what needs to happen earlier on in the project. I can then move the actions into a logical order so that the project plan flows through each action in turn to reach the end goal.

Note: when you begin, you may not know the exact dates actions will take place, some actions are dependent upon others. For example, “Pay off balance of flights and trek” is listed below without a date assigned. Until you have researched options and booked the flight and trek you will not know when this action needs to take place as every tour operator will have their own policies regarding deposits.

Project Plan Example 1

You’ll notice, on my next screenshot, that I have added additional actions as they have occurred to me. This is a vital part of the process as it is often hard to visualise every aspect of the project at initial conception, when you start to work through and put your actions in order, any additional tasks that will need to be included should start occurring to you.

The plan has also evolved to include due dates for each action, along with a column to show whether it has been completed. This includes a colour coded key to make it easier to see at a glance what the situation is for each action, whether it is complete, still a work in progress, or overdue. Adding a column for notes is useful too, as it allows you to explain any overdue actions to everyone who has sight of the project plan.

Project Plan Example 2

What this plan does not have yet, is a space to assign actions to others. Most projects will not be completed in isolation, you’ll have a team of people helping you deliver the project. It is always best to include a column detailing who is responsible for each action so that everyone is clear about their role and responsibility to deliver on time. Under a column titled “Responsible” I have listed the person responsible for ensuring that action is completed – “Me” along with others who are involved – e.g. “Manager” in booking time off, and “Doctor” in receiving travel medication/advice.

Project Plan Example 4

Depending on how far you want to drill down into the details when planning, you can choose to include each of the tasks that sits under the main actions you have identified, for example, to book time off work you will need to:

  • Consult your team’s diary for the dates you want to book leave
  • Contact your manager with potential dates for leave request
  • Agree dates with your manager
  • Have leave signed off

You can choose to present this additional information in various ways, whether by including all the actions and tasks on the same plan, (as in the below screenshot example, with the tasks mentioned above highlighted using grey colour/italic text), you could have a Project Plan that only includes headline actions, or maintain a headline sheet with high-level actions only to make it easier to feedback progress to Project Sponsors that is supplemented by a more detailed Project Plan with all tasks outlined for the benefit of the Project Manager.

Project Plan Example 5

As we have hopefully demonstrated, putting together a Project Plan does not have to be complicated. You don’t have to buy in any expensive tools and technology unless you feel it would be of benefit to you. The example plan here was created from scratch in very little time using only Microsoft Excel.

You can make the plans more or less complex depending on your needs. This example is clearly a simple one, but projects plans can include costs, risks, overspill time allocated to each action and so on. However, we do recommend that you aim for simplicity. The biggest document isn’t always the best. If your intended audience don’t read or understand the plan because it is too detailed, or too complicated, then it has failed.

On a final note, your plan will constantly evolve. The planning process should be continuous throughout your project. Many things can happen to force you to change your approach and no plan could survive in its original form from the start to the finish of the project without being amended. Don’t be afraid to make changes.

Contact us at Active Outcomes if you’d like to know a bit more about project planning.

 

 

 

Get Started: PEST Analysis

First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room. It is called a “PEST” but that doesn’t automatically imply that it is irritating, ok?

In fact, a PEST analysis can be a really useful tool to help you take a look at the external factors that could have an impact on your organisation. If used properly, it can really enhance your strategic planning by allowing you to understand your business position, potential for growth, direction of travel and any outside factors that may have an influence on your operations such as market decline, environmental legislation, financial regulations and infrastructure investments in your local area.

PEST is a mnemonic that stands for “Political, Economic, Social and Technological” and the framework covers macro-environmental factors that can be used to conduct environmental scanning to inform strategic planning or market research.

There are many other variants of this mnemonic, which include additional factors which may be right for your organisation to consider including too, we’ve listed these below.

  • SLEPT > Social, Legal, Economic, Political, Technological
  • PESTLE/PESTEL > Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental
  • STEER > Socio-cultural, Technological, Economic, Ecological, Regulatory
  • DESTEP > Demographic, Ecological, Social, Technological, Economic, Political
  • STEEPLE > Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political, Legal, Ethical
  • STEEPLED > Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political, Legal, Ethical, Demographic

You need to decide which of these analysis frameworks best covers all aspects of your organisation’s work, whether you use a basic PEST, or a more complex version, and then you can choose the one that best suits your needs. However, for the purposes of this blog (and keeping things simple – which is what Active Outcomes do!) we’ll be covering the basic “PEST” analysis.

Getting Started

We recommend having a bit of time set aside to complete this analysis, it can help to do a bit of background research around the various external environmental factors and so we also suggest that you work on this with your computer near at hand so you can quickly look up any potential issues as you consider them.

We also find it helps to bounce ideas around, so if you have a colleague you think would be great at helping you identify potential issues and opportunities ask them to take a look and add to your document.

A blank sheet of paper can worry some people if they have absolutely no idea where to start. So, if you already have any strategic planning documents, such as SWOT analyses, market research reports and so on, these can be a great initial source of ideas and can act as a springboard to help you get some ideas scribbled down.

Remember, when you are drafting this analysis that there are no bad ideas. The point of the exercise is to consider hypothetical situations. You are trying to foresee what might happen and unless you have a fully-functioning crystal ball (unfortunately we don’t) you are not going to correctly predict everything that may come to pass.

Completing Each Section

We’re going to go through each macro-environmental factor now and suggest a few ideas for each individual section to get you started. When completing your analysis try and be specific, for example, if you have an ageing local population with 17% more retired people than the national average include the figures. This gives you an at-a-glance reference to what the main issues/opportunities are so that you can figure out how to set about overcoming and exploiting them.

Political:

  • Current government: how stable is it, what are the priorities in their manifesto, what announcements have been made recently in the news?
  • Bureaucracy: which government departments might have an impact on your work?
  • Local government: what are the priorities for your local area, e.g. are there any planned infrastructure projects that could affect access/footfall, do you have all the correct licenses in place and when do these need renewing?
  • Tax policies: what are the rates and incentives, are there any changes in the pipeline?
  • Press freedom / priorities.
  • Regulation/deregulation.
  • Trade controls: if you import/export consider the risk of changing tariffs, restrictions on goods (quality and quantity). [The UK exit from Europe could have some serious repercussions in this particular area.]
  • Trade Unions: which ones represent your workforce, do they have any campaigns/industrial actions planned?
  • Law: what changes to any applicable laws might be happening – consider:
    • Environmental law,
    • Anti-trust law,
    • Education Law
    • Employment Law
    • Discrimination/Equality Law
    • Parental Leave / Flexible Working,
    • Competition regulations,
    • Copyright/Intellectual Property law,
    • Health and Safety,
    • Consumer Protection / eCommerce, and
    • Data protection and Information Security.

 Economic:

  • Growth rates: these may not seem to have a direct bearing on your business, but if the whole economy is booming you are more likely to feel the benefits.
  • Inflation: if inflation increases, the amount you (and your customers) can purchase will decrease, knock-on effects could be increased raw material prices and transport costs which you have to pass on to consumers.
  • Interest rates: whether low or high, the implications can be huge, e.g. low rates of interest are great for those who already have a mortgage but are not as helpful to the people saving a deposit to put down on a home.
  • Exchange rates: important for import/export led business.
  • Unemployment trends: this can affect the availability of skilled labour and the costs of hiring.
  • Labour costs: employees are your greatest resource (and often your biggest expenditure), look at your rate of employee retention, could you reduce staff turnover and re-train skilled members of staff to fill any gaps and reduce external hiring costs. What changes do you anticipate needing to make to your workforce?
  • Stage of business cycle: review your business plan, look at the potential for strategic growth, plan for your busy/quiet periods.
  • Credit/funding availability: when a scheme is time-limited plan ahead so that you have all the evidence needed to support an application for credit/funding within that cycle. If your funding lasts for a set period, put in place a timescale for review so that you know when to start the application process for continuation funding.
  • Trade flows and patterns: these could be disrupted due to global events.
  • Level of consumers’ disposable income: this ties in to levels of inflation, if people have less money to spend after they have paid for the basic necessities what impact could this have on your business?
  • Monetary/fiscal policies: what changes have been announced or could be on the cards?
  • Stock market trends: on the whole, the stock market is seen as being mysterious and complicated, but you can gain an insight into current market conditions by looking at the type of companies that are winning or losing and seeing why they are in that position, e.g. if an announcement is made about investment in green energy you might see a decline in traditional energy companies and an increase in more environmentally friendly ones.
  • Weather: this one may seem trivial but can have a huge impact if you rely on getting customers through your door.

Social:

  • Health: the health and well-being of local people can affect productivity and effectiveness.
  • Population: growth rates, age profiles e.g. an ageing population might mean there is a smaller workforce and a demand for different services.
  • Education: may mean there are not enough workers with the correct skill-sets.
  • Religion and beliefs: you may need to take into account various religious holidays and observances.
  • Lifestyle and buying habits: try to segment your “typical” customers to create a profile for each and see how they spend and why. What might affect this?
  • Family: e.g. what rights/regulations may change for employees with families? Can you adapt and work flexibly around family commitments?
  • Environmental/ethical: what are the prevailing attitudes toward green or ecological products and renewable energy? What options exist for you to trade more ethically/responsibly?
  • Immigration/emigration rates: do you have a diverse workforce or work internationally, could this change as a result of the EU exit? What changes might need to be put in place to ensure continuity for your workforce?
  • Work/life balance: look at attitudes toward career, leisure and retirement. Could you do more to ensure you are offering an attractive benefit package and retaining the best talent?

 Technological:

  • Technological change: what is likely to change within your industry and how can you keep pace?
  • Research and development: what do you need to be looking into changing now to get ahead of competitors?
  • Automation: can you improve efficiency/effectiveness by automating processes?
  • Outsourcing: is it cheaper in the long-run to outsource certain services rather than spend time struggling to compete tasks in-house?
  • Government priorities: how much is the government spending on technological research and innovation, what infrastructure are they investing in?
  • Depreciation/product lifecycle: when do you anticipate needing to replace key equipment? Do you have contingencies in place in the event of any equipment failure?
  • Internet: are you taking advantage of eCommerce opportunities, do you have the fastest possible connection package, does your website need updating, do you have to provide certain information online as a legal requirement e.g. a cookie policy?
  • Generational shifts: who is buying your product, how do they expect to interact with it? E.g. younger consumers may expect to be able to log a complaint via social media and have it responded to instantly

These suggestions are by no means exclusive, they are here to help you get started, not all of them will apply to your organisation and there will be a lot of other factors that do apply that we have not mentioned.

How to Present the Information

Here is a sample PEST Analysis we have completed for a small charity as part of an Organisational Review. As you can see, we have tried to keep it simple and visual. We have highlighted the key issues for each section and we have charted whether this is likely to have a high, medium, or low positive or negative impact.

PEST

We created this infographic using Canva and you can sign up and create designs completely free of charge online on their website.

This is not the only way to present the information: you can choose to use a table, with the titles for each section and a bullet pointed list of the factors listed underneath. Others choose to present the document in a more traditional report style format, going through each section individually and giving a greater level of explanation for each factor identified. There are pros and cons for each approach and you’ll need to identify which is the best for your particular needs.

If you need any assistance or advice about undertaking a PEST Analysis give us a shout, we’re always happy to help, visit www.activeoutcomes.co.uk for all of our contact details.

Cheat Sheet: Risk Logs

Managing risk is an essential part of everyday life. When planning a project, creating and maintaining a Risk Log is something we recommend you make an essential component.

It sounds like it should be complicated, right? Wrong! It needn’t be any more complicated than the example I am going to walk you through now, it’s an easy topic, one that anyone who has ever tried to plan a barbeque in Britain will be able to follow.

RL1

There are eight columns in the risk log template above:

  1. Risk – the name of the risk.
  2. Probability – the likelihood of it happening, 1 = very unlikely, 5 = certain.
  3. Impact – what will the effect on your project will be, 1 = no real issue caused, 5 = catastrophic, derailing the entire project.
  4. Risk Score – Probability Score x Impact Score = Risk Score. The lower the better.
  5. Mitigation – what could you do to manage this risk, either making it less likely to occur or preventing it having such a huge impact?
  6. Contingency – what will you do if the worst does happen?
  7. Action Owner – who is responsible for taking action to prevent the risk?
  8. When – at what point does the Action Owner need to respond?

Our example project is planning a BBQ. So we need to come up with the risks associated and then populate the table. The first risk that sprung to my mind was RAIN!

RL2

Rain is a quite a risk, but to prevent it spoiling the fun you can plan when to hold your event carefully to avoid the times of year when it is most likely to occur. You can also hire a marquee (just in case), move indoors or hand out umbrellas to guests as a contingency if the weatherman gets it wrong and it does happen to be raining on the big day.

The next image shows a few more risks at the BBQ and what can be done to manage them.

RL3

Remember:

  • A Risk Log can and should be a working document, updated regularly to reflect any changing circumstances.
  • Include risks no matter how trivial they seem. One thing often leads to another and sometimes a small thing can trigger a huge unintended consequence.
  • Get as many people as possible involved in brainstorming risks to add to the log, it always helps to get a different perspective, they may spot a few things you missed.

Have a go at completing the Risk Log below to see how easy it is.

RL4

Get in touch with Active Outcomes if you’d like some more information about risk management. We’d love to chat via Twitter @ActiveOutcomes, email info@activeoutcomes.co.uk, or visit our website at http://www.activeoutcomes.co.uk.