Project Management Foundations – 10 Steps to Create a Strong Baseline Plan
By Steve Hart
When interviewing project management candidates, my favorite interview question is: “When you are assigned to a new client/project, what is the process you utilize to establish the baseline project plan?” Some candidates lose points immediately because they describe a process where the baseline plan is equal to the project schedule. Many candidates start out pretty strong talking about identifying stakeholders and defining business needs, and then get lost on a rambling dialog through the entire project life cycle.
I like this question so much because as a project manager you are introduced to new situations all the time (new clients and new projects), and it is extremely important to hit the ground running leading project teams through the planning process. Adapting a consistent planning approach from client to client, and project to project, significantly improves outcomes of the project planning process (both time to market and quality of the plans). Strong baseline plans represent the foundation for a successful project delivery process.
10 Steps to Create a Strong Baseline Plan
- Ramping-up – The first step is to learn everything you can about the new project. In most cases, you are not starting the project with a “blank piece of paper”. Take the time to read through existing project artifacts, and meet with interested parties. The focus of this step is absorbing everything you can about the new project, and understanding where you are starting from in the project initiation process. The key to this process is active listening and observing — it is amazing how much you can learn when you are not doing the talking.
Understanding the Stakeholders & Forming the Team – The next area of focus is starting to identify the project stakeholders. Throughout this process you are trying to understand the people that have a strong interest in –or- impact on the project. This is the point in time when you begin to form a high performing core team and a helpful steering committee.
Developing the Business Case – As the project manager, you can be the strong partner that facilitates improvement and finalization of the business case (aka, the project charter). With your fresh and unbiased perspective on the project, you can add significant value by ensuring that the key components of the business case (e.g., objectives, benefits, assumptions, high level requirements) are explicit, understood, and achievable.
Creating the WBS – The Work Breakdown Structure defines the scope of the project by breaking the work down into components that can be scheduled and estimated and easily monitored and controlled. A well-constructed WBS represents the most effective way to define and validate the scope of the project (what deliverables will be produced). The project manager’s role in this step is to facilitate the organization and decomposition of the work required to successfully deliver the project, in the form of the WBS.
The Project Timeline – The focus of decomposition in the context of activity definition is identification of the specific actions / activities that will be required to create the deliverables that were defined within the WBS. The Project Manager also works with the team to establish the relationships between project activities. The key to creating a logical flow (organization) of work within the project schedule is the definition of these relationships/dependencies. The final component of this step is the process of determining how long it will take (in days) to complete an activity, or a series of activities (duration estimation). At this point in time, the project schedule starts to reflect a timeline with project milestones. This timeline is utilized to validate the reasonableness of previously established target dates (or establish target dates if they do not already exist). It is important to keep in perspective that at this point in the process you are trying to arrive at a first cut of the project timeline, and not create the final project baseline (in the spirit of an iterative process) – you are looking for reasonableness, not perfection.
Resourcing the Plan – The Project Manager builds on the project timeline by estimating resource requirements for each of the schedule activities, and loading specific resource assignments and work efforts into the project schedule. At this point in time the project manager will also perform resource usage analysis and leveling techniques, and create the project staffing plan.
Finalizing the Project Schedule – After resources are loaded into the schedule, the project schedule is for the most part fully formed. At this point, it is best to perform a final review of the project schedule (individually as the project manager, and also with the core team). The goal of this review is to determine: 1) Can the team deliver with this schedule? Are there opportunities to improve the schedule? 2) Is the schedule well understood? Are all aspects of the schedule fully documented?
Finalizing the Project Budget – The step of finalizing the project budget is focused on efficiently leveraging the planning assets created to this point in the process, and performing the appropriate level of analysis to develop a project budget that will be understood and approved by the client, and just as importantly can be managed throughout the project life cycle. This step includes creating the labor budget, understanding other cost components and reconciling the project budget with project funding.
Finalizing the Baseline Plan – The step of presenting the baseline to the Steering Committee is one of the most exciting times in the project planning lifecycle. If you have tied up loose ends with key stakeholders, sponsors and core team members, you are well prepared to bring the project baseline (scope, timing, and budget) to the project executives for approval. This meeting/briefing represents a key gate for moving forward with the project.
Transitioning to Project Execution – As a project manager, you often rely as heavily on your “soft skills” as a project leader, as you do on your core knowledge as a project manager. This is particularly true during the transition from project planning to execution. It is the time period when you are on-boarding the entire project team, and moving from “planning the work” to “doing the work”. As you make this transition, you must establish a good rhythm on the project team.
Where do I go from here?
These steps are not a detailed prescription or specific recipe for project success, but they do represent a proven approach to move a team effectively and efficiently through the project planning process – from the time you are assigned as the project manager, to the time you begin the execution phase of the project. If you are able to describe this approach during the on-boarding discussion with your new project sponsor, you are likely to begin to establish credibility as an experienced and competent project manager. In addition, if we do happen to cross paths in an interview situation, you now have the input required to get you through the initial screening process.
Steve Hart, PMP is the Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. He has 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, and has developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. Steve recently transferred to the North Carolina Chapter of PMI from the Dayton Ohio PMI Chapter, where he was active as the editor of the chapter newsletter, and PMP certification instructor. You can read more from Steve Hart on his blog.