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The Second of 8 Habits of Highly Successful Project Managers: Plan the Achievement!
By Richard Morreale

This article is a part of a series. You can find the previous article here.

There are loads of reasons why the second habit of very successful Project Managers is Plan the Achievement. We know that without a plan we are never sure of what we are supposed to be doing, when we are supposed to be doing it, when we are supposed to have it finished, who is dependent on us finishing it, when the entire project is going to be completed and how we are going to know if we are on time for delivery. I think those are enough reasons for Project Managers to pay particular attention to Planning the Achievement on their projects.

The Importance of Planning

One of my mentors (he doesn’t know he is a mentor of mine but I have read so many of his books and listened to so many of his audio programs that I feel like I know him), Zig Ziglar, says that, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. Without a plan in place there can be no control with resulting chaos. We won’t know where we are going, how, or when we are going to get there. Success will just not happen.

There are a number of comments about planning over the years that I have had to answer.

“I don’t have time to plan. I’ve got to get on with the real work.” What real work? Without a documented plan how do you know what productive work has to be done.
“What we plan now is bound to change.” Absolutely it will. Which is all the more reason, as far as I can tell, why we need to have a plan in place. We need an agreed plan in place so that we can control the changes that will come. We need to be able to consider the impact of proposed changes on the schedule and we can only do that with an approved plan in place.
“It’s as long as a piece of string.” If they are going to say it, people usually say this when you ask them how long a specific activity is going to take. I believe that you can always estimate the time it will take to do any activity. Break it down into small pieces, estimate the small pieces, add them up and you’ve got your estimated time to do the activity. If you are really having trouble providing the estimate then why not time-box it.
“Some things just can’t be planned.” I have never found a project for which my team and I couldn’t develop a plan. We developed the plan by following a planning process that I will describe in detail later in this article.

When Does Planning Start

Planning starts almost before anything else. It’s just the degree and the detail of the plan that changes as you move through the Life Cycle of the Project. For instance, as I’ve said many times before, it is impossible to put together a detailed plan for the delivery of a project before you know what it is to be delivered. However, you can put together a detailed plan for the work required to identify and document what has to be delivered.

When Does Planning Stop

After everything else is finished. Planning, along with monitoring and updating of the plan is a constant activity throughout the life of the Project.

Who Should be Involved in the Planning

I believe that everyone who is involved in making the plan work should be involved in the Planning in varying degrees. For instance, the Project Manager should work with the Project Management team to identify the process that will be the basis of the plan while the management team must ensure that their direct reports have a good understanding of the process and their comments have been solicited. All Project Stakeholders should, at least, be made aware of the plan with as many as possible helping to produce the plan itself. Obviously, everyone that has some input into the achieved Project success must believe in the plan.

Some time ago, I was contracted by a large insurance company to head up a Project that should have taken about 3 years to complete but they had been working on it for approximately 5 years and it still wasn’t finished. The estimate for completion at that time was for another 2 years but no one trusted the estimate. In fact, as I found out later the 2 year estimate was strictly a ‘finger in the air’ guess. The Project was to replace all of their existing IT systems and it was about a year late. One of the first things I looked at was the existing plan or should I say the lack of an existing plan. The Project had degenerated into 6 different Teams working on a number of IT programs with each of the Teams being managed using the old ‘seat of the pants’ method with plans on the back of a cigarette pack. I felt that one of the first things that I should do was to put a good structured plan in place so that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, when they were supposed to be doing it and who was dependent on them doing it. I also knew that I couldn’t just dictate a process and a plan to them. First of all, I didn’t know enough about the Projects to do that and if I did know enough and dictated a plan they would not be committed to it. So I had to get them involved in dictating the process and reflecting the process in an agreed plan if we were going to put a good plan together.

The 6 Project Managers, my Project support manager and I worked closely together over a period of approximately 2–3 weeks and put a very good plan in place. During those 2–3 weeks each of the Project Managers discussed the development process and the planning estimates, etc. with their individual Teams and got their commitment. As the Program Manager, I challenged estimates and led the process and, at the end of the planning period, we had an excellent plan in place. The new plan covered a 13 month period that we basically stuck to for the rest of the Project. The Teams responded very well to the new process and program of work and we delivered on time.

What Comprises a Good, Detailed Plan

Let’s look at what I believe comprises a good plan by looking at the criteria I use to decide whether a plan is a good one or not:

  • Very clearly defined objectives. A plan needs to have very clearly defined objectives. That is, there needs to be a very clear definition as to what the objectives are that the plan will be delivering.
  • Prepared with monitoring in mind. In other words, it must be deliverable based and should identify the logical step-by-step process that must be accomplished to produce and deliver the individual deliverables. A logical step-by-step process is very easy to monitor and this monitoring assists the Project Manager in determining achievement to date.

  • Level of detail. The level of detail to which the step-by-step process goes down is 5 to 10 days. No step should be longer than 10 days and, in fact, in some cases I plan down to 1 day steps for things such as handovers, etc.

  • Estimated effort vs. elapsed time. Project Managers need to realize that an estimated effort of, say, 5 days for an activity does not necessarily mean that the activity will take only 5 days to complete. Remember that Project Team members have other activities that eat into an average work week. Time must be allocated for Holidays, Sick Leave, Reviewing of Proposed Changes, Ad Hoc Meetings, Achievement Meetings, etc. On a major Project that I worked on early in my career as the Manager of the Project Support Office, we found that the team had to work 5 elapsed days to achieve 4 productive days. And, in fact, on a slipping project that I reviewed for one of my customers, I found that in 5 elapsed days of work, the Team was achieving only 2 productive days.

  • Dependencies, resources and estimates. A good detailed plan must include not just the deliverables to be produced and delivered, not just the step-by-step activities that will need to be taken to achieve delivery but also the dependencies among the activities, the resources required to accomplish the activities and the detailed estimated effort and elapsed time for completion.

The Planning Process

The following is the 7-step planning process that Project Managers follow:

  • Step 1 – Define Top Level Phases of the Project
  • Step 2 – Prepare Product Breakdown Structure
  • Step 3 – Prepare Work Breakdown Structure
  • Step 4 – Identify Dependencies
  • Step 5 – Estimate Effort
  • Step 6 – Identify Resource Requirements
  • Step 7 – Prepare Schedule

Thanks for spending the time with the Monthly and me and we’ll meet in the next issue.

Richard is a project manager, professional speaker, author and consultant specializing in Project Management, Leadership, Achievement and Customer Service.

You can book Richard for your next meeting or conference at or 336 499 6677. You can check his website here.

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