Master the Key Elements of Effective Project Planning Today

The success of your projects depend on proper project planning. But, what exactly does effective project planning look like?

project planning

Project planning is crucial for project success, but it does not exist in a vacuum. It’s part of the project management cycle that consists of 4 distinct phases: Initiation, planning, execution, and closure. Planning is essential for several reasons; it ensures that:

  • Projects run smoothly according to a plan
  • You deliver projects on time and on budget
  • Everyone has a mutual understanding of the project objectives
  • Everyone understands their roles in achieving those objectives
  • You’re able manage time, costs and risks better
  • You have an early warning system in place: By monitoring progress against a plan, you can identify when there are deviations that could hurt the project.
  • You get all your thoughts down on paper and can break down the project into manageable chunks

Of course, the success of the project depends on how good your planning is. The good news is that project planning isn’t hard. And, you definitely don’t have to have to go “full-out” at it by following comprehensive project management approaches.

You just have to make sure you include these simple 8 elements of effective project planning—tailored to you—the small business owner.

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The 8 Key Elements of Effective Project Planning

The details are important for any project. But the problem is that when you start any new project, pinning down those details can be difficult—which can cause overwhelm. This overwhelm can contribute toward the project never getting off the ground in the first place.

The better approach is to focus on basic milestones and goals. To help you with this, here are 8 crucial elements that you should incorporate into the project planning process.

1.The Identification of Stakeholders Needs

Stakeholders include anyone affected by the project. These could be end users, employees, project sponsors, and clients. Regardless you need to consider all stakeholders and their needs.

Identify the stakeholders, meet with them, write down and prioritize their needs. If you’re still struggling to prioritize, use Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix which helps you prioritize based on urgency and importance.

However, when meeting with stakeholders make sure you lead a structured conversation. You don’t want your stakeholders to lead you astray which may mean that at the end of meeting all you’re left with is a long list of desires that aren’t relevant to the project.

You want to keep it on point and list only what’s important for the project. By all means, acknowledge other concerns and demands, but let them know you don’t think those points are relevant right now. Instead, suggest to “park” them for later on.

2. Smart Project Objectives

From the stakeholders’ needs, create project objectives. The objectives need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Consider these 2 objectives:

  • Increase website traffic
  • Increase website traffic to a client’s site by 50% on 21 August 2018

The second objective is far more specific and gives you a clear projected path of what you want to achieve. You can use it as a benchmark to measure how well you’ve increased traffic.

The objective “increase website traffic” would imply that a 1% increase in traffic would be a success. And, I’m sure that’s not what you’d want.

3. Clear Deliverables and Deadlines

What specific products or services do you need to deliver to your client? These are your deliverables and, for each deliverable, you should set a due date.

A deliverable for “increase website traffic” may be to “provide monthly traffic reports,” or even “improve on-page and off-page SEO.” On-page SEO refers to optimizing your website’s pages to improve SEO. Off-page SEO refers to methods you can use to improve ranking in search engines that extend beyond your site such as social media promotion.

4. A Detailed Project Schedule

Your schedules include the deliverables, tasks for each deliverable, due dates for each task and deliverable, and who will complete them.

Assign Tasks to Each Deliverable

By breaking up each deliverable into manageable tasks, it’ll be easier to meet your project objectives. Think of the entire project as a cake. Each slice is a deliverable, and each bite of a slice is a small task.

If improving on-page SEO is your deliverable, a task may be to produce 4 blog posts per month as part of your blogging strategy.

Specify Due Dates for Tasks and Who’s Responsible

Make sure you specify the due dates for those tasks and who will be completing them. By clarifying who’s responsible, you avoid misunderstandings later on.

Identify Dependencies

You also want to look at dependencies. Are there specific tasks that depend on the completion of other tasks? For example, you may need client approval on a design before you can take it to the printer.

How to Create These Schedules

You can brainstorm with team members on a whiteboard and paper or, use online collaboration apps such as Trello or FreshBooks for managing projects. These apps are particularly useful if you’re leading a remote team.

For example, Trello lets you organize projects by combining lists, cards and boards. Boards can be your deliverables and the lists tasks assigned to certain people. As you complete tasks you can move Trello cards through the project process.

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5. Defined Roles and Responsibilities

Beyond specifying who’s responsible for each specific task you also need to define all roles. These include indicating who’s responsible for the entire project, each deliverable, what client roles are and who reports to who.

For example, a content writer may be responsible for producing blog posts and report to the content editor who manages a team of writers and the content schedule. The content director, in turn, reports to the project director, and so on.

Defining roles, responsibilities and reporting structures ensures everyone knows what’s required of them and remains accountable throughout the project.

But do remember that no matter how defined the roles are responsibilities are, you need regular check-ins to make sure everything is on track. These check-ins may take the form of meetings, weekly reports or short daily conversations using your favorite project management software.

Certain checkpoints in a project may also need client approval before you can move on to the next stage. For example, if you’re designing a site, you may need to check in with the client once a week to see that the changes you’ve made are in line with what they want. Your client should understand that their input plays a role in moving the project forward.

6. Project Costs That Help Identify Shortfalls

Any plan should specify upfront costs so that you can allocate budgets and identify shortfalls. You can deal with these shortfalls by using proven ways to get more working capital.

Additionally, you should also have a plan for monitoring and controlling costs. This will allow you to remain on budget and may include regular team meetings and meetings with the client.

These meetings are important because going over budget is sometimes unavoidable. But by tracking and communicating with clients, you’ll receive less resistance when you tell them you’re over budget and that they may need to pay more.

7. A Communication Plan That Keeps the Project Moving Forward

The success of any project hinges on good communication. You should communicate when there are project changes. You should also communicate and let the client know when you need their input. And so it goes. This all forms part of your communication plan which should specify:

  • How often you’ll communicate to project stakeholders. Will it be daily, weekly or monthly?
  • The updates the client expects to receive: Are these face-to-face meetings, weekly status reports sent via email, or even telephone calls?
  • How often the client expects to receive these updates
  • The project checkpoints that require client input before the project can proceed

8. The Right Process and Systems to Track and Manage Projects

All 7 previous points are an essential part of the planning process, but an often overlooked one, is the processes:

  • What procedures will you use to communicate to team members?
  • What systems will you use to track projects?
  • Will you give clients visibility into the project?
  • Should they have access to your planning tools?
  • How will you ensure that you deliver what your client wants?

Now, you could create all these schedules in a spreadsheet and manage projects and communication via email and telephone. The problem is that this often leads to miscommunication. That’s not to mention the endless digging through your inbox to find emails and files. And, let’s not forget the challenges of running a remote team?

Thankfully, there’s a better way (that we did allude to earlier): Online collaboration apps for managing projects. Besides Trello, other platforms such as FreshBooks let you collaborate seamlessly and communicate about existing projects.

You can invite employees and clients to collaborate—effectively giving them access to your planning tools. What’s more, all information is stored in the cloud, so you don’t have to spend time searching for it.

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Project planning doesn’t operate in a vacuum and is a crucial part of the project management lifecycle. It helps you better manage your time, resources, and team and ensures everyone is on the same page.

But, project success will depend on a solid plan, one that includes 8 essential elements:

  1. Identification of stakeholder’s needs
  2. Smart project objectives
  3. Clear deliverables and deadlines
  4. A detailed project schedules
  5. Clearly defined roles
  6. Project costs
  7. A communication plan
  8. The right systems and processes

Have I missed anything? Do you use any of these elements to plan your projects?

Nick Darlington
about the author

Freelancer & FreshBooks Customer Nick Darlington is a FreshBooks customer and small business owner who's been running a writing business for close to 4 years now from his home in sunny South Africa. When he’s not sharing his knowledge and experience about how to successfully run, manage, and grow a small service business, he’s helping aspiring and established writers succeed at WriteWorldwide.