Rapid project planning--propelling projects to success

Senior Consultant, Project and Program Management, Management Concepts, Inc

Vienna, Virginia, USA


Data from many industries suggest that a majority of projects are not successful. They are late, considerably over budget, and fall short in quality. In addition, they do not meet the project client's functionality needs and expectations. There are many surprises during the project that cause alarm to everyone.

Most of the failures in these projects seem to come from a lack of definition and planning. Even with very visible, significant projects there seems to be a “just-do-it” (JDI) mentality. This causes a great many problems with schedule, budget, scope, and quality. Appropriate communications to stakeholders and project visibility are not done well and Risk Management is done poorly, if at all.

Project managers should be pro-active and aggressive in the management of their projects. They should be in control of the project rather than the project in control of them. As a result of JDI there is no formal definition and planning process in place. When JDI occurs there is no charter or project plan to manage against and the project team is in catch-up mode. This becomes merely a reactionary, firefighting process to an unsuccessful completion.

Many of today's projects are large and have considerable risk. They are directly aligned with the vision/mission, strategies, and goals of the organization. Many of them have a dramatic effect on the company's bottom-line profitability. It is essential that these projects be started properly with the highest chance of success. Getting complete and accurate information from the onset is crucial. It is important that everyone is on the same page and have the same perception of the project from the beginning. Having understanding, commitment, and buy-in from all key stakeholders is a critical part of success.

Rapid Project Planning

Rapid Project Planning is a facilitated consulting process. It uses a facilitator and a scribe to officially launch medium-to-large projects. It is a focused, intense session to insure a successful start to projects. The purpose of holding a Rapid Project Planning session is to:

  • Formally launch the project to build a common understanding of the project definition, scope, and approach
  • Obtain stakeholder buy-in on the project objectives and scope
  • Determine success measurements
  • Build a strong project team with a common vision
  • Finalize and present the project baseline in the form of a charter and related documentation for approval to move forward with the project.

It is essential that the planning session follow industry accepted best practices and processes. Organizations have to adopt a consistent, repeatable process so that their project managers can learn, practice, and gain skill and competency. These processes and skills are then demonstrated in the Rapid Project Planning session.

Even when team members have been trained in project management, there may be reluctance and concern with having inexperienced people conduct the start of important projects. In some cases, because of the size, complexity, and political nature of a project, it is beneficial to have an experienced, outside facilitator plan the new project. Persons from outside the organization do not come with any “baggage” and are seen as impartial and unbiased. They do not have any pre-conceived agendas, proposed processes, and results in mind. They are experienced and have demonstrated successes.

When the effort is a very large program or initiative, it is even more critical to have an experienced facilitator help to kick-off the project. Creating program-level documents and then translating them to individual project-level documents is a large endeavor. If not recognized and done correctly the whole initiative will be handled as a series of non-related activities with little chance of success.

The Facilitator

The roles and responsibilities of the Rapid Project Planning facilitator are crucial to the success of the planning session.

The facilitator's roles are:

  • Providing the foundation for the team to develop
  • Understanding group dynamics
  • Facilitating dialog and decisions
  • Managing behaviors

The facilitator's responsibilities are to:

  • Understand individual differences, work styles, cultural nuances
  • Lead discussions
  • Drive groups to consensus
  • Use collaborative skills

Facilitator activities are:

  • Working as a neutral “Change Agent”
  • Guiding the process
  • Adhering to facilitation principles
  • Moving the team to reach goals
  • Developing an action plan
  • Defining the focus of the team
  • Planning the sequence and timing
  • Modifying the team focus when needed
  • Summarizing and keeping informed
  • Guiding the team to make good decisions
  • Utilizing diversity and wisdom
  • Working with teams through trust

The following actions hinder effective facilitation:

  • Not remaining neutral
  • “Telling” instead of “asking”
  • Reacting and/or showing emotion
  • Allowing an atmosphere of distrust and disrespect
  • Allowing ground rules to be broken
  • Interpreting comments
  • Not recording all comments
  • Allowing participants to loose focus
  • Not preparing
  • Not researching the audience

A facilitator:

Is not…

  • A subject matter expert on the meeting topic
  • An organizational strategist
  • A technical lead
  • Representing management

Does not…

  • Back a particular opinion voiced in the group
  • Offer their own opinions
  • Let the team shy away from a difficult area

Considering the information above it is easy to see why there is a need to have a neutral, trained facilitator conduct the Rapid Project Planning session.

Rapid Project Planning Process

Pre-Rapid Project Planning: Kick-off Meeting


The kick-off meeting is a meeting between the executive sponsor, project manager, Rapid Project Planning facilitator, and scribe. This two to four hour meeting will occur prior to the actual planning session. The purpose of the meeting is to introduce the key players. It also establishes the lines of communication and sets the ground rules for decisions.

The meeting will establish the executive sponsor's view of the upcoming project. The sponsor will describe the project's background, mission, strategic alignment, and overall business benefit and value that the project brings to the organization. The project's scope, objective, assumptions, risks, and issues from the sponsor's perspective will also be discussed.

Additional meetings with other key stakeholders may be necessary. This will enable the planning team to get as much preliminary information as possible, allow them to answer any questions, and make everyone aware of the processes and commitment needed to be successful.

It is important to have the right stakeholders involved in Rapid Project Planning. Many times in a project we do not have the right or the correct number of stakeholders participating in the planning. There is a tendency to have blinders on or have tunnel vision regarding the appropriate stakeholders. Remember a stakeholder is a person or group with a vested interest in the project. Another way to put it is that a stakeholder can affect or is affected by the project. It is imperative to reach out to all possible stakeholders for inclusion in the Rapid Project Planning session. At that time it is also helpful to ask the identified stakeholders: “Who else is affected or can affect the project.” It is common that they will identify additional stakeholders that no one else thought about. A caution should be noted here. It is possible to get too many people involved in the Rapid Project Planning session. Apply common sense here and involve those who are truly the key stakeholders.

This information will be recorded by the scribe and, upon approval by the sponsor, will be available in advance of the actual planning session. This will create a “straw man” set of information. This set of preliminary information from all of the persons and organizations interviewed will be extremely important to start the actual session. It will enable the planning session to start with more than just a blank page.

Pre-Rapid Project Planning: Training


It is essential that all of the participants of the planning session be familiar with the best practices of project management. It is highly recommended that all planning session participants attend a workshop on the principles of project management prior to the actual session. At the very least the participants should be educated on the initiation and planning of projects. This will probably require some time prior to the event. This will ensure that everyone will be on the same page with terminology and process. If the launch group is very knowledgeable in project management then a one-day review/preparation session with the facilitator will have them ready for the planning session.

If tools will be used in the process it may be necessary to train key individuals on the use of the tools as well as the principles mentioned above. This may be difficult if some of the participants of the planning session are to be remotely involved. The scribe must be trained on the use of any tools used. Although many participants may be entering data during the planning session the scribe is the key person ensuring the documentation of the information.

In previous versions of project planning the scribe was the person entering data on flip charts as information was discovered about the various parts of the documentation. In fact, many planning sessions have two scribes flip charting information.

Even in todays Rapid Project Planning using automated data capture tools, the scribe still plays an important role. There usually is not a one-to-one use of laptops to capture the information; therefore a well-trained scribe is still essential.

Pre-Rapid Project Planning: Communications


It is important that the right stage be set for the Rapid Project Planning session. A communication to all participants should be issued stating the purpose of the session. How the project is tied to the vision/mission of the organization must be shared with all stakeholders. Basic information concerning the process itself and the dedication required by the participants should be included. This should be put in a very positive frame, highlighting the importance of individuals and their value to the project and planning session. This communication should not be a one-time event. Open, honest communications throughout the process is essential to a successful planning session and a successful project.

The Rapid Project Planning Session


Session Pre-work

In order to have a successful Rapid Project Planning session spending the appropriate time on pre-work is vital. The time before the actual session is dedicated to customizing templates, forms, and files that will be actually used in the session itself.

Testing equipment, including laptops, hand held devices, scanners, printers, and networks (local and remote), is essential for a smooth-running session.

The Rapid Project Planning Session

Attendees at the planning session should include members of the core team, support team, and subject matter experts in the various areas of the project. It is recommended that as many stakeholders of the project as possible attend the session. This will ensure information accuracy, completeness, and ownership/buy-in of the whole team.

The components of the Rapid Project Planning session are as follows:


Project sponsor or member of the Steering/Executive Committee will kick-off the session by stressing the importance and strategic alignment of the project. This will set a positive tone for the entire planning session.


The work of the project definition process will include:

  • Reviewing and finalizing scope (inclusions and exclusions) based on high-level, preliminary requirements
  • Reviewing and finalizing objectives
  • Establishing the core/support team
  • Identifying the project priorities using of the competing demands (scope, cost, quality, and time
  • Establishing the communication plan
  • Determining the change management plan
  • Creating the team operating agreement
  • Creating the issues list
  • Outlining the assumptions list
  • Creating the risk list
  • Identifying performance goals and measures
  • Documenting a milestone schedule

High-level plan

The work of the planning process will include:

  • Establishing a level two or three work breakdown structure (WBS)
  • Determining skills that are necessary for the project
  • Identifying persons/organizations in a resource pool that will provide necessary
  • Forecasting the work hours of effort and days of duration
  • Creating a network diagram
  • Identifying the critical path
  • Determining schedule reserves and placing them in the network
  • Developing a Gantt chart with a forecast of days of duration
  • Performing high-level resource loading and leveling
  • Forecasting the project budget and budget reserves
  • Developing a high-level risk management plan

The outputs from the planning session are a project charter and high-level plan with forecasts. The planning session process with the full team gives the best opportunity to have accurate and complete information. Involving all possible participants in the project planning process helps insure ownership and commitment to the success of the project.

Rapid Project Planning is an intense, focused process that usually will last from 2–5 days depending on the size and complexity of the project/program. The sessions each day typically last from 8:00AM to 5:00PM. The facilitators will then work into the evening to produce the days’ deliverables that will be necessary for the next day's session. In addition, the facilitators will spend two or three days off-site after the planning session to prepare the final deliverable for the organization.

Best Practices

The actual Rapid Project Planning session should be conducted by experienced facilitators with additional personnel performing the role of the scribe. Two scribes are recommended to handle the large volume of material that has to be captured on flip charts and then electronically. One the scribe should come from the planning session organization. This helps with any questions that arise during the translation to electronic format.

The session should take place at an off-site location. Participants should be dedicated to the entire session. Having individuals come and go disrupts the flow of the process and hinders progress.

Post-Rapid Project Planning: Follow-up


Hold regular, weekly team meetings and facilitated small-group planning meetings immediately after the planning session to review project requirements, develop the more detailed project plans and schedules, and build a high-performing, committed project team. Several meetings will be needed to complete the detailed project plans and schedule.

Setup a project notebook (electronically and physically) that will serve as an archive for all of the project documentation.


The Rapid Project Planning process has shown to be a very powerful and successful way to initiate medium-to-large projects and programs. When done correctly, they provide a positive, quick start to projects that will enable them to be more successful. It will also help build a cohesive, high performing team. In the organizational and project world today the use of virtual teams is almost a given. The new processes and technology available today allow for the Rapid Project Planning process to work quickly in this world. The time, money, and effort put into the Rapid Project Planning activities are easily justified and paid for by the overall success of the project.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©Don Wessels
Originally Published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2009 – Washington D.C.



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