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Project Management Best Practices: Planning the Project

Lamp_head_Planning_Lead_article_33052010_XSIn Part 1 of this series, I shared four best practices that can help you lay the foundation for a successful project. In this installment, adapted from my book Practical Project Initiation, I briefly describe eleven practices that are useful for project planning.

Practice #5: Write a plan.

Some people believe the time spent writing a plan could be better spent writing code, but I don’t agree. The hard part isn’t writing the plan. The hard part is doing the planning—thinking, negotiating, balancing, asking, listening, and thinking some more. Actually writing the plan is mostly transcription at that point. The time you spend analyzing what it will take to solve the problem will reduce the number of surprises you encounter later in the project.

A useful plan is much more than just a schedule or task list. It also includes:

Staff, budget, and other resource estimates and plans

  • Team roles and responsibilities 
  • How you will acquire and train the necessary staff
  • Assumptions, dependencies, and risks 
  • Target dates for major deliverables
  • Identification of the software development life cycle that the project will follow 
  • How you will track, monitor the project
  • Metrics that you’ll collect and analyze
  • How you will manage any subcontractor relationships

Your organization should adopt a standard software project management plan template, which each project can tailor to best suit its needs. You might start with the project management plan template at Study this template to see what sections would make sense for the types and sizes of projects that you work on. Shrink and adjust it to suit the nature and size of your own projects.

If you commonly tackle different kinds of projects, such as major new product development projects as well as small enhancements, I suggest you adopt a separate project plan template for each project class. The project plan should be no longer or more elaborate than necessary to make sure you can successfully execute the project. One page might suffice in some cases. But always write a plan.

Practice #6: Decompose tasks to inch-pebble granularity.

Inch-pebbles are miniature milestones (get it?). Breaking large tasks into multiple small tasks helps you estimate them more accurately, reveals work activities you might not have thought of otherwise, and permits more accurate, fine-grained status tracking. Select inch-pebbles of a size that you feel you can estimate accurately. I feel most comfortable with inch-pebbles that represent tasks of about five to fifteen labor-hours. Overlooked tasks are a common contributor to schedule slips. Breaking large problems into smaller bits reveals more details about the work that must be done and improves your ability to create accurate estimates. You can track progress based on the number of inch-pebbles that the team has completed at any given time, compared to those you planned to have done by that time.

Practice #7: Develop planning worksheets for common large tasks.

If your team frequently undertakes certain common tasks—such as implementing a new class, executing a system test cycle, or performing a product build—develop activity checklists and planning worksheets for these tasks. Each checklist should include all of the steps the large task might need. These checklists and worksheets will help each team member identify and estimate the effort associated with each instance of the large task he must tackle. People work in different ways and no single person will think of all the necessary tasks, so engage multiple team members in developing the worksheets.

Using standard worksheets will help the team members adopt common processes that they can tune up as they gain experience. Tailor the worksheets to meet the specific needs of individual projects. I’ve used such worksheets when creating eLearning versions of my training courses. They helped me avoid overlooking an important step in my rush to finish the project.

Practice #8: Plan to do rework after a quality control activity.

I’ve seen project plans that assumed every test will be a success that lets you move on to the next development activity. However, almost all quality control activities, such as testing and peer reviews, find defects or other improvement opportunities. Your project schedule should include rework as a discrete task after every quality control task. Base your estimates of rework time on previous experience. If you collect a bit of data, you can calculate the average expected rework effort to correct defects found in various types of work products.

And if you don’t actually have to do any rework after performing a test, great; you’re ahead of schedule on that task. This is permitted in all fifty states and in many other countries. Don’t count on it, though.

Practice #9: Manage project risks.

If you don’t identify and control project risks, they’ll control you. A risk is a potential problem that could affect the success of your project. It’s a problem that hasn’t happened yet—and you’d like to keep it that way. Simply identifying the possible risk factors isn’t enough. You also have to evaluate the relative threat each one poses so you can focus your energy where it will do the most good.

Risk exposure is a combination of the probability that a specific risk could materialize into a problem and the negative consequences for the project if it does. To manage each risk, select mitigation actions to reduce either the probability or the impact. You might also identify contingency plans that will kick in if your risk control activities aren’t as effective as you hope.

A simple risk list doesn’t replace a plan for how you will identify, prioritize, control, and track risks. Incorporate risk tracking into your routine project status tracking. For reference by future projects, record which risks materialized and which mitigation actions were effective. See Chapter 6 of Practical Project Initiation for an overview of software risk management.

Practice #10: Plan time for process improvement.

Your team members are already swamped with their current project assignments. If you want the group to rise to a higher plane of software development capability, though, you’ll have to invest in process improvement. Software project activities should include making process adjustments that will help your next project be even more successful. This means you’ll need to set aside some time from your project schedule for improvement activities. Don’t allocate one hundred percent of your team’s available time to project tasks and then wonder why they don’t make any progress on the improvement initiative.

Some process changes can begin to pay off immediately, but you won’t reap the full benefit from other improvements until the next project. Process improvement is a strategic investment in the organization. I liken process improvement to highway construction: It slows everyone down a little bit for a time, but after the work is done, the road is a lot smoother and the throughput is greater.

Practice #11: Respect the learning curve.

The time and money you spend on training, self-study, consultants, and developing improved processes are part of the investment your organization makes in sustained project success. Recognize that you’ll pay a price in terms of a short-term productivity loss—the learning curve—when you first try to apply new processes, tools, or technologies. Don’t expect to get fabulous benefits on the first try, no matter what the tool vendor or the consultant claims. Instead, build extra time into the schedule to account for the inevitable learning curve. Make sure your managers and customers understand the learning curve and accept it as an inescapable consequence of working in a rapidly changing, high-technology field.

We’ll look at several practices for estimating the work in the next article in this series.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below. 

Karl Wiegers is Principal Consultant at Process Impact, His interests include requirements engineering, project management, peer reviews, and process improvement. His most recent book is a memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons.

Karl Wiegers

Karl Wiegers is Principal Consultant with Process Impact, a software development consulting and training company in Portland, Oregon. He has a PhD in organic chemistry. Karl is the author of 13 books, including Software Development Pearls (from which this article is adapted), The Thoughtless Design of Everyday Things, Software Requirements, More About Software Requirements, and Successful Business Analysis Consulting. Karl has also written many articles on software development, design, project management, chemistry, military history, consulting, and self-help, as well as 18 songs. You can reach Karl at

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