Why Better Project Plan Quality Starts with Doing Less

Not every disastrous project starts with a bad project plan, but it certainly doesn’t help.

It would be easy to just blame PMs who rush and don’t give their plans enough detail, but that misses the real problem. Bad project plans are just as often burdened by too many details as they are by too few.

As you probably know, the list of things that can go wrong is long. So how are PMs supposed to ensure high project plan quality while sticking to their budgets and deadlines? Staying sane in the process would also be a plus.

The answer doesn’t lie in a specific template or checklist, but in the way you approach your project plans in the first place.

What Does a High-Quality Project Plan Look Like?

It’s important to start with the basics, what does a high-quality project plan even look like? Different PMs certainly have different answers. The key difference lies in what methodology you’re using for project management.

In waterfall, a great project plan is one brimming with enough detail to ensure no question about the end product remains unanswered. That sounds great in theory, but when someone emails you a 68-page monster of a plan you quickly start to see the problems.

First, these project plans take a staggering amount of time and resources to produce. But is it at least worth it? For most industries, the answer is a clear no. If you’re constructing a building or something similar, you’ll need to create a detailed project plan, but for things like software or marketing campaigns, this just doesn’t make sense.

Because, as any PM worth their salt will tell you, every project encounters unexpected obstacles along the way. The result is that by the time the project is done, that huge detailed plan feels like it may have been written in ancient Greek; it's so divorced from the ultimate reality.

What Does a High-Quality Project Plan Look Like

Contrast that with the Agile vision of project plan quality: one where the plan is shorter, easier to produce, and functions as a kind of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The basic idea is that the project plan should be as limited as possible while still providing value as a plan for the team. Think of it as a kind of cost-benefit analysis for each part of the plan: does adding this provide enough value to justify the effort?

By using this philosophy as a guide, you end up spending fewer resources trying to produce greater project plan quality while still creating something that’s useful. But if you’re still struggling to imagine this in action, let’s run through some of the components you can use.

Start with Better Estimation Tools

When you’re creating a project plan, estimation is a huge deal because when it goes wrong, the entire plan can quickly go off the rails. The result is usually annoyed/angry stakeholders and frustrated team members.

The problem comes with the basic fact that every project manager understands, yet far too few really act on: humans are absolutely terrible at estimating how long it will take to do something.

But we humans are terrible at tons of things, that’s why we use tools! Estimation is no different. 

Games like planning poker are excellent at honing your team’s estimation skills over time. But they only work if you practice regularly. That’s why tools alone aren’t enough. You also need the right approach to estimation

For example, if you’re only estimating your projects at the planning stage and you’re creating massive waterfall-sized project plans, you might only estimate a few times a year. At that rate, it’ll take you years to really improve.

There are a few common approaches you can use. One is to estimate task difficulty based on t-shirt sizes. The approach we use at AgileSherpas is based around the Fibonacci sequence, so a task can be a 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc. Consider the range of sizes required for your tasks, and what makes sense for your team members to find a system that suits your needs.

However you approach it, it’s important to combine better estimation tools with smaller project iterations for better overall project plan quality.

Before proceeding to learn how to integrate stakeholders into your project plan, why don't you take a second to get check if bad processes are eating up your marketing budget?

How to Integrate Stakeholders

Another key to project plan quality is understanding what “quality” actually means in your situation. That requires stakeholder input because the quality you’re trying to deliver is ultimately for them.

So what precisely are stakeholders? Most obviously, this would be your end client or customer, but this might also include internal stakeholders or anyone who has an interest in your project. Once you know who your stakeholders are, you need to find a way to integrate them into your project planning phase.

There are many ways to do this, but on the most basic level having a conversation with them about priorities is a solid start. For example, you might use the Agile Project Management Triangle to decide together about how to determine the right resources and time for the intended scope at this stage.

Agile Project Management Triangle-1

This both improves your project plan quality by ensuring it’s focused on delivering the value your stakeholders actually want and builds crucial alignment between everyone involved. Just be sure to consider your stakeholder management strategy, regularly checking back in as your project plan evolves and progresses. Because, as any PM knows, stakeholders sometimes get exactly what they asked for only to realize it’s not what they actually need. Getting that feedback as early as possible can at least reduce a lot of potential headaches.

Track Progress with a Visualization Tool

Visualization tools are the backbone of modern project management. When it comes to ensuring a high project plan quality, they’re essential.

But why? Aren’t visualization tools all about execution?

Yes, but they’re also where you transform a general project plan into actionable work items. Depending on the size of the project, this might mean creating epics or just building a backlog of cards to handle all the tasks needed for success. 

These cards are where you’ll actually do the estimation we talked about. But they’re also how you can tie all the small tasks that make up a project directly to the project’s broader goals. This helps ensure that once you start executing, you’re actually going to deliver all that stakeholder value you promised.

In the process of executing your projects with a visualization tool, you also get the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. These then feed back into your next planning stage, ensuring your project plan quality improves over time.

Breaking Down Projects and Distributing Tasks

This step of translating project plans into reality is worth exploring in more detail because it’s where a lot of problems tend to arise. 

Here, techniques like Portfolio Kanban can provide a “steel thread” connecting tasks to projects on a larger scale. So even if you’re dealing with enormous projects within a large and complex organization, Portfolio Kanban ensures project plans retain a clear structure that delivers value.

Portfolio Kanban Breakdown

This approach prioritizes transparency and alignment while still retaining the flexibility Agile requires to thrive. Individual contributors to your projects can easily see how their tasks deliver value to larger epics, projects, etc. This is great for team morale and it helps everyone prioritize more effectively because they know who is reliant upon their work and what value it’s ultimately delivering.

Using Service Level Agreements

Another tool project managers can employ to better establish expectations and prevent bottlenecks when developing project plans is Service Level Agreements (SLAs). These agreements enable project managers to get clear, black-and-white agreements about expectations and deliverables between themselves and stakeholders.

For project plan quality, transparency and clarity are hugely important. For example, if you find yourself getting regularly blocked on work because you need input from stakeholders, SLAs enable you to clearly lay out how that input should be provided and what happens when it’s not. By getting everyone on the same page about what needs to happen, it becomes far easier to leverage your stakeholders for greater project success.

How These Elements Come Together

Picture this:

You’re developing a new project plan. You begin by having some conversations with your key stakeholders to understand their needs. You fix the budget and timeline and build a prioritized list of deliverables your stakeholders would like to get within those constraints.

Now you put that list onto your visualization board backlog. Working in two-week sprints, your team pulls items from the backlog and estimates how difficult each one will be. Based on how many tasks get done in each sprint, your team gradually gets a better understanding of both their own capacity and how to estimate tasks more accurately.

At the end of each sprint, you check in with your stakeholders to get feedback and have your team talk through how to improve. As a result, you and your team are able to get into a process of continuous improvement so the next time you need to develop a project plan you’ve got a long list of lessons learned.

Importantly, those lessons are also backed by data. So when leaders or stakeholders want to understand why things are done a certain way, you have a clear answer.

Now you can move forward with greater confidence in your project planning. Of course, it never goes exactly this smoothly, but the strategies here are all about flexibility and learning from mistakes. 

Better Project Plan Quality Begins Here

It should be clear by now that ensuring the highest project plan quality requires getting a lot of elements right at the same time. From estimation and prioritization to structuring projects in visualization tools, there are a lot of skills to master for success.

Fortunately, we’ve built an online learning platform called The Ropes that’s specifically designed to do precisely that! In it, you’ll find accessible 30-minute lessons on:

  • Visualizing work
  • Building and managing backlogs
  • Creating effective work items
  • Capacity planning & estimation
  • Prioritization
  • Using shared services teams
  • Creating user stories
  • Strategic Agile planning with OKRs
  • Quarterly & big room planning

And many many more. So if you’re wondering where to start in developing your next project plan, check out The Ropes to find all the skills you’ll need for success.

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