I prefer the Oxford English Dictionary definition:
"a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something"
If done thoroughly enough, the astute of you will see that Project Planning is synonymous with Project Definition.
For me, project planning starts at the beginning of the Project Management Life Cycle and continues all the way through a project's development, and ultimately all the way to its end point and beyond. Past its end-point ???
Absolutely! - at the end of a project, review what could have been improved and plan to use the lessons on the next project. It’s so common that this gets overlooked. Maybe don't wait until only the end to do this. Continuously learn and improve during the project?
Like all other aspects of successful Project Management, PLANNING is an iterative process, continually being developed and honed as details become better defined and understood. Without planning, there is no project control. Without project control; failure, fast!
"The desire to plan well should be inherent in every project manager's DNA..."
Here's an insight into the way I believe planning should be approached and why.
It's a logical sequence of events.
The following process could take a few days, or several months to undertake. The time and effort taken should depend on the complexity of the project being undertaken. However, no matter what the complexity of the project:
Understand the context of the project – the objectives, expected benefits, starting point conditions, outline scope – what does “success” mean and look like?
Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) Chunk it down! - identifying and breaking down into logical and manageable chunks what needs to be done in order to deliver the project. I generally think of related chunks of work as Work Packages.
Organisational Breakdown Structure (OBS) - Who's going to be responsible for delivering the specific chunks of work, or Work Packages, identified during the Work Breakdown Structure exercise.
Task Sequencing - identify the logical sequence for carrying out the tasks identified from the Work Breakdown Structure exercise, as well as the inter-dependence of the tasks and activities.
IMPORTANT: this exercise starts to build the vision of how the project will come together.
Task Duration - identify how long each task is expected to take in terms of calendar time, one day, 3 weeks, 4 months .....
Critical Path Analysis (CPA) - With all this valuable information, now is the time to consider the timeline.
The process of CPA is best carried out using proprietary project planning software. Critical Path Analysis identifies the shortest possible time for completing the project, as well as those tasks/activities that affect this. You'll have seen the output of this process - the BAR CHART or GANTT CHART, same thing!
Basically, a time phased horizontal bar chart report of when activities will start and finish, as well as much more useful information. The Project (or Program) Time Schedule!
Non-Project Related Events - add in non-project related constraints in time which must be taken account of such as; scheduled plant/system outages, public holidays etc., then recalculate the project Critical Path - now you have your first look at the expected project end date - usually this date doesn't look so good.
NO WORRIES! this is all an iterative process…
Is the estimated end date acceptable? - do the results of steps 6 & 7 make sense, based on practical logic, common sense and experience? At first, the answer is usually NO! So review steps 4 through 7 until you are satisfied you have reached a credible solution with the information available.
TIP: It's worth recording items you are unsure of, as well as the assumptions you have made - so you can sense-check them later on.
Resource Breakdown Structure (RBS) - construct an RBS, this identifies the type of resources needed to carry out the project. You should also assign COST RATES to each type of resource.
Resources Schedule - by assigning quantities of PEOPLE or MATERIALS to activities in the Project Time Schedule, following step 8, it’s now possible to see how much of each Resource is needed at any point along the project timeline.
Resources are very rarely unlimited, so when Resource needs are compared with their availability, a series of mismatches (peaks and troughs) occur along the project timeline. These mismatches need to be balanced (smoothed out). This is generally done by extending the calendar duration for those project activities where identified resources are limited.
This could affect the overall Project Time Schedule, completion date and Critical Path. You may need to review the HOWs again to create a way to do the project without missing the target end date.
Cost Commitment - this is how much money you will need to have committed to spend at any point in time to deliver the project as planned. That is to say, cash has not yet left your bank to pay for relevant resources, but the project has committed, legally or otherwise, to spending cash in order to progress.
Back at step 9, when you assigned cost rates to resources... This allows you to identify the required cost commitments needed along the project timeline, in order to achieve the drive the necessary levels of progress.
Cash Flow - now the accountants wake up and take an interest! Cash Flow identifies when the cash associated with your cost commitments actually leaves your bank. Cash flowing out usually lags the cost commitments due to credit arrangements, invoicing times etc. BUT just like any business, cash is the lifeblood of the project and vital to project success. If the cash dries up, so does the project!
"Strong Cashflow Planning is mission critical since it identifies when cash funding is needed by the project"
It's very rare for the project sponsor to dump the full agreed budget into the project's current account on day 1; so predicting the correct draw down of finances allowing the payment for commitments is key to maintaining the appropriate momentum in the project.
The assumptions and clarifications help to identify and shape those items, that if different from the plan, could impact the project negatively - RISKS!
As a SUCCESSFUL project manager, you should always have your finger on the pulse, especially why changes have occurred. This relies on having a clear, structured and logical plan to start with.