Project planning

frequently asked questions -- part 1


by Neal Whitten, PMP, Contributing Editor

EFFECTIVE PROJECT PLANNING is vitally important to the success of a project, yet on many projects planning is weak. Here are responses to some frequently asked questions about this crucial activity.

Q. What is the primary purpose for a project plan? Project planning is about getting in control. Until a project has a comprehensive plan to follow, it cannot convincingly be defended as being under control. The project plan serves as a road map of project activities, is critical to achieving a healthy productivity rate for the project's members, is the keystone for project communications, and is the baseline from which to gauge progress. Note: Project tracking is about staying in control and can only be effective after a reasonable plan is in place from which to track.

Q. When should a project plan be started? A preliminary project plan should be available within the first week that a project manager (PM) is assigned to a project. It should address the next two to four weeks of activities and requires no approval other than by the PM. It is used to ensure that the PM, as well as project members coming onboard, are making reasonable progress. Until a comprehensive project plan can be put in place, the PM must always have a near-term plan from which to pace progress.

Q. What events should occur before a comprehensive project plan can be created? Minimally, these events should occur: the project manager is assigned; the requirements (problems to be solved) are completed and approved; a scope statement (very-high-level solution addressing the problems) is completed and approved; and a critical mass of project members are assigned and working the project. For some projects, detailed specifications or a statement of work also is completed and approved. For the more process-mature projects, additional exhibits are in place, such as a project management methodology and a project charter defining, among other things, roles and responsibilities.


Neal Whitten, PMP, president of The Neal Whitten Group (, is a speaker, trainer, consultant, mentor, and author. His books include The Enter Prize Organization: Organizing Software Projects for Accountability and Success, published by PMI. Comments on this column should be directed to [email protected].

Q. It appears that the PM is responsible for the project plan. True? True. The project plan is created according to the direction given by the project manager. Every project member contributes to it, and the PM ensures that all aspects of the plan are carefully reviewed and approved. The PM defends the right plan on behalf of all project stakeholders and is held personally accountable for both the completeness and the performance of the plan.

Q. Is it wrong for the client, sponsor, or head executive to preset the project completion date? Not at all! This date is helpful to allow the project team to understand the sense of urgency of the project and to attempt to achieve the target date. A problem arises only if the project team cannot possibly achieve the target date, yet it is mandated anyway.

Q. Referring to the last question/answer, what can the PM do if directed by a superior to provide a plan that, on paper, appears to achieve the end date but in reality is unrealistic?

The project manager has the responsibility to defend the right plan. If the PM is unsuccessful, then several steps can be taken. (1) Solicit a respected third party to assess the reasonableness of the project plan with the expectation that that person backs up the PM's assessment. (2) Put metrics in place so that early warning signs can be seen if the progress of the project plan begins to wane. (3) At the end of each major phase of the project plan, add the activity, “Resize Project Plan.” This will allow a more accurate estimate for the remaining phases.

Q. But what if the project end date is contractual? Isn't it a waste of time to resize the project? All the more reason to resize the project when better estimates can be provided. If you have a committed project completion date, it is imperative to understand the obstacles so that they can be mitigated. Perhaps the original end date cannot be achieved; however, everyone will be pulling together to minimize the damage.

Next month, in Part 2, I'll respond to more frequently asked questions about project planning, while continuing on a quest to add more thoughtfulness to an often ineffectively performed activity. ■

September 2000 PM Network



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