A Small Business Guide to Project Planning

As small businesses grow so too does the complexity of their organisational structure and the scale and scope of implementing projects. What once might have been a case of just signing up for a new cloud software solution, might now be a major IT project which will involve collaboration from various areas of your business (not just IT). An understanding of project methodology, management and planning and is therefore essential if you are to make these projects a success.

Writing a project plan for the first time can be daunting. You are already busy getting to grips with the scope and preparing to go into battle for team members.

At this point, an understanding of project management methodology would really help. Being able to apply a robust set of steps would bring some structure to your thinking. There are different methodologies; each has evolved to suit a particular industry and a certain style of working.

Here we will discuss the essential steps in planning a project for an SMB. The steps are largely the same whichever methodology is in use.

Stakeholders

The first step is to identify the project stakeholders; these are the people with an interest in the success of the project. There will usually be a customer representative; definitely so if this is a customer-sponsored product. Internal contacts will represent parts of the business such as sales, quality and support.

If the business is new to running projects formally, you will need to find internal nominees. Articulate the benefits of having a say in the project; the stakeholders will be responsible for defining and agreeing the project’s scope, budget and timescale.

Scope

The scope document is a key asset in securing understanding and buy-in from the stakeholders, it defines the shape of the project and what it is intended to achieve:

  • Its overall goals, objectives and justification.
  • High level business and customer requirements – these will be detailed during the project.
  • Any requirements that are excluded from scope – for clarification.
  • Development and project management approach.
  • High level deliverables.
  • Acceptance criteria and who is responsible for signoff.
  • Limitations and constraints.
  • Assumptions, such as availability of Subject Matter Experts.
  • A broad estimate of costs – this is the basis for initial budget and will be assessed at milestones during project execution.

The scope document will evolve rapidly during the planning stages, so it’s important to use version control when publishing. The content and purpose of bullet points are expanded in more detail under the sub-headings below.

Goals and Deliverables

Work through any existing agreements on scope, for example customer requirements. Meet with stakeholders to understand their needs and how they complement (or conflict with) the scope. Draft an initial set of project objectives and prioritise them.

Goals should be specific and measurable so that they are clear to stakeholders and can be assessed and checked off when the project is delivered.

State the methodology that the development team will use. Will detailed specifications be produced and approved, or will the product be developed in an agile manner from user stories?

State how the project will be managed, when the stakeholders will be involved and what information they will be given.

Deliverables are the individual outputs of a project. Each deliverable may be a physical product, a working piece of software or a document. From a project planning perspective, it’s essential to define the deliverable clearly: what will be delivered and when.

Creating a Detailed Project Schedule

Having secured approval for the scope document, the next step is to break down the deliverables. Consider each deliverable as a sequence of tasks; each task has an estimate and a resource.

If possible, use the senior members of the team to breakdown the tasks and to produce the estimates. This can be tough as the detailed scope may still be vague, but including them at this stage will help with buy-in later and should ensure that estimates are realistic.

Use a scheduling tool such as a Gantt chart to lay out the tasks and resources. Most tasks will be dependent on the completion of a predecessor task; use the scheduling tool to indicate these dependencies.

The tool will help to highlight resource constraints. Enter assumptions for availability and time-off. Allocate tasks to a named group such as developer and roll-up the total hours. Check these against the hours available in the planned timescale. Where tasks can only be completed by one specific person, enter detailed information for their availability and holidays and check that they are not overloaded.

Highlight any resource constraints and assumptions as risks to the project and agree a mitigation strategy.

Execute the Project

Plan a project kick-off with the team. Invite key stakeholders to present the customer perspective and importance to the business. Invite feedback, encourage everyone to contribute and ask questions.

With an agreed scope, buy-in from the team and a detailed project schedule, running the project will still be a challenge. You will need to apply project management skills[1], but the thorough planning work will give you a robust foundation.

 

 

 

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