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Building Workplans at the Right Level
By Carl M. Manello

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.“ – President Dwight D Eisenhower

While hopefully none of us is planning for an attack, the wisdom of the 34th president can be applied to work more close to our hearts: establishing the foundation of a project. When supporting clients as a project manager, a lot of time is spent discussing what should be in a project plan. However, clients are usually not looking at the holistic planning process; they are focused on the mechanics of the plan itself and on how small to slice up the work packages. Notwithstanding Ike’s advice, the focus of this blog is on the plan itself. There is a common fear that if tasks are planned at too high a level, then critical details may be missed or team members may go too far astray before a misstep can be found. This begs the question, “what is the right level of detail to create in a plan that makes it useful to manage a project?”

We think that it is important that one doesn’t start with the end in mind with regard to a project plan. That is to say, you should not start with the tool or the template. A plan needs an outline. A work breakdown structure or a mind map are great starting points.

A mind map is a visual breakdown which can illustrate everything needed to be covered in the project. It’s visual, rather than linear, which makes it easier to digest. In addition, since it does not have the formality of a workplan, it can be used to discuss scope without getting hung up on workplan details (e.g., dependencies, resource allocations, work-day effort).

After a mind map is developed, then one can begin creation of the work plan itself. A common challenge in developing the specifics of a plan is the question of “how granular should a task list be?”. One common guideline is that no single task should be longer than 40 hours. When tasks get longer than this, it has been shown that they are harder to track and control. Here are some additional guidelines for developing a plan:

  1. Each activity should have a deliverable. A deliverable is some unambiguous, tangible outcome from a set of tasks that moves the project forward. This could be a document, an update to a document, a signoff, a review session, or some completed code.
  2. A task has a single owner. Establishing accountability is crucial. Many may be involved in an effort, but only one should be at the helm.

  3. When approaching something that is labeled as “Out of the box,” that does not mean there is no effort required. Implementing something “vanilla” or even something from a prior project takes time and effort.

  4. Always break down tasks into more detail when the activity is poorly understood or involves technology new to the organization. For example, something as broad as invent new technology solution slated for 1,000 hours is a sure recipe for project disaster.

  5. A task should only be marked complete when it is complete. While some try to estimate a task as 25%, then 50% and then 100% complete, this only adds a greater amount of subjectivity and ambiguity to the plan. Adhering to a 0/100 rule makes completion a bit more conservative (and accurate): if the task is not 100% complete, its zero percent complete.

Remember, as Eisenhower notes, the important part of planning is not the plan itself, but the process. Focus on a good planning process, leveraging these tips for your plan. Plans will less likely become deliverables in themselves or check lists to be assessed during a project phase gate review. By following these guidelines, your workplans will become a better guide and will be the basis for instructing your project team’s direction and marking their accomplishments.

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Slalom‘s Program & Project Management practice based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations. You can read from Carl on his blog.

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