Project Planning- A complete tutorial

Meticulous project planning is something that anybody who wants to succeed in managing projects should strive for,  but few really achieve it.

In project management like most skills in life, the more you plan, the luckier (better) you get. A lot of people think they are good planners but in reality, sadly they are not!

If you make a list and write 10 items that you plan to do in a day or a week, it is a good start but it is not good planning yet. In a good plan, you need to add when, how long and how often things will get done.

For example, if you are a blogger and write in your to-do list ” I need to write a blog post, I know it is very important for my online business”, Well that is not a plan but just a wishlist.

If you write I will spend 2 hours a day, five days a week and I will publish 2 blog posts a week, then you have a decent plan.

On the other hand, if you say I will work 2 hours a week on ideas for the blog post I intend to write and list 10 ideas a week. Spend half an hour a week to sort my ideas and prioritize them and delete the ones which I find dumb.

I will write for two hours each day from 10 AM to 12 PM. If someday I can’t work on those hours I will use 4:00-6:00 PM instead. I will publish a blog post every Monday and Thursday at 2:00 PM.

Now That is an awesome plan. Do you see the difference between the first plan and the last one? The devil is in the details. Good planning needs a lot of details to be effective and to succeed.

You can track and monitor the last plan easily and if you fall behind one-day, you will notice it right away and have a contingency plan to take action to correct it.

Project Planning Iron triangle

When planning a project be it a personal project or a work-related project you need to consider the three elements in the Iron Triangle of planning.

Every plan needs to deal with these three elements correctly to have a chance to reach the goal. The three elements of project planning are Resources, Time and Scope.

  1. Resources: The people, budget and all other things you need to start and finish a project. This includes office space, computers etc.
  2. Time: The time it will take to start and finish the project and reach the goal.
  3. Scope: A detail description of what you are planning to deliver, its quality and steps you need to take to achieve your goal.

If you have unlimited resources and unlimited time, theoretically you may achieve anything you desire. So here the scope could be as grandiose as you would like.

In real life, you never have unlimited resources or time. By the way, this is why communism and socialism consistently fail.

The scope is set by bureaucrats with little knowledge of the right resources needed and appreciation of the time it takes to reach goals.

If you have fixed resources,  you can do trade-offs between scope and time. If the time is fixed, you can do trade-offs between resources and scope.

If the scope is fixed, then you have to do trade-offs between time and resources.

In traditional project management methods like Waterfall, the scope is fixed. The team can play with resources and time to plan a project.

If scope changes or the team encounter unforeseen issues during development which will cause a delay in the schedule, they have to add resources or make the project longer in time to get to the goal.

In Agile project management method, the project resources and time are fixed, the only variable is the scope. In Agile the scope is defined by what is doable with the resources and time the team has.

So if the resources and time are not enough for a given scope, the scope is reduced.

The Hybrid project management method is a bit more complicated.  I really believe that at the heart of every large project is a small project trying to get out.

In the Hybrid method, a large project is divided into many small projects, but the project long-term scope is fixed.

Assume your ultimate goal is to make an exact copy of “747” jetliner, but the team has the option to introduce inferior versions of the aircraft to the market in short intervals and then improve and enhance the aircraft in each subsequent release.

In Hybrid, the project is divided into several releases. In each release, the product gets closer to the ultimate goal. For each release, the time and resources are fixed and the scope is flexible.

The difference between Agile and Hybrid is that in Agile the scope is never fixed and always dynamic. In Hybrid, the short-term scopes are not fixed, but the long-term scope is fixed.

In Hybrid to get to the ultimate goal, the number of releases may be increased. The picture below shows the difference between the three methodologies.

Iron Tiangle

Project Planning fundamentals

As I mentioned before good project planning needs a lot of details. To do project planning correctly you need to follow the processes outlined below in the order as they are presented.

These are well-established processes and are practiced by best project managers in diverse industries like IT, product development, manufacturing, marketing etc.

Yes, project planning could be tedious and sometimes boring, but good project management software plus basic knowledge of how things are done should help to make it a lot easier and less stressful.

1-Project Goals

The first thing you need to define before anything else is what are the project goals? Don’t confuse Project goals with project scope.

The purpose of project goal is to show why a corporation or a small business owner is engaging in an activity to produce a product or service and what it hopes to gain from such a venture.

If your plan is to design a new revolutionary gadget, what are the objectives of this gadget? What pains will it solve? Is it to be the best gadget in the market? the cheapest?

what is the planned market share for this gadget? How much it will cost the customer to pay for it and so on.

Do you get the idea behind the project goal? It is not too different from startups pitch selling their ideas to investors.

The investor does not care about the gadget, but its benefits to the consumer, the society (hopefully) and for the investor to make money. The project goal is the alignment of the product with business objectives.

Goals should be based on SMART Goal principles which stand for Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-bound. In other words, goals need to be well defined.

As a project manager, you should get agreement on the project’s goals from your team and all stakeholders in the project. Good project planning starts with defining the project’s goals.

2-Project Scope

Now that you have figured out the project goals, you can define the project scope and objectives.

What are the features in the gadget you plan to make? What is its size? How much does it cost?

When does it need to be delivered to the market, etc? In short, project scope defines what should be delivered to the market, when the project is done and how to get there.

You need to answer the what, how and when questions to complete the project scope. What the product or service is? Its features and it costs?

How to develop and finish the project? When do we need to be in the market?

3-Project schedule

After you have established goals and scope, it is time to create the project schedule. The project schedule is a precise road-map of all the actions you and your team need to take and duration of each task to achieve your stated goal.

Here you need to decide which one of the following project management methodologies you will use to manage your project:

  1. Waterfall
  2. Agile
  3. Hybrid

You may prefer other methods, but the above three are representative of all methods used today.

Other project management methods have only small differences from the methods listed above and follow the same rules for scheduling. Choosing the right project management method is very important before you create any task or due date.

The method you choose will affect how the project is done and whether you deliver one final product or several smaller products until you reach your ultimate objective.

You should choose a project management method based on yours and your team’s experience and preference. I am a huge fan of Hybrid project management method, but regardless of which method you choose, you need to do the following steps:

  1. Define all high-level tasks and milestones in the project
  2. Breakdown those high-level tasks into smaller tasks using Work Breakdown Structure method
  3. If using Agile or Hybrid, define sprints and their scope
  4. Set monthly milestone that could be monitored and measured. A milestone needs to be defined well and be measurable. Finishing firmware or producing an electronic board are good examples of Milestone.
  5. Use three point task estimation to figure out each task’s duration.
  6. Find out task dependencies and use them to rearrange tasks and milestones.
  7. Set start date for each task and sub-task. Because of introduction of dependencies some of your start dated are pushed back in time (the task will start later than you planned)
  8. Put everything on a Gantt Chart. The Project management application you choose should do this automatically for you when you create tasks and milestones.
  9. Publish the plan and share with your team and other stakeholders in the project.
  10. Update the plan and share when things change.

When building the schedule you need to be aware of the resources needed to finish the tasks.

4-Project Resources

When you have created your task list and the preliminary schedule, it is time to figure out the resources you need to finish the project on time.

If you find out that you don’t have all the resources you need for the schedule has made, you need to revisit the schedule and change it. That is why I called the schedule preliminary.

Remember that the lack of right resources will have a direct impact on the time it takes to finish the project.

The employees and contractors you need, the equipment needed to work on the project, the space required by your team to work on the project etc are all project resources.

Good project management software makes it easier to balance the resources (people, equipment & space) you need to work on the project. It will also show when these resources are needed.

5-Project quality

What is the definition of when the project is done? If you meet the deadline how you can show that product meets the specification?

The quality specification is the document which states when and under what circumstances you and your team can claim victory and ship the product or service you are working on.

This is extremely important to define the quality of the get-go. It is very hard to improve the quality of a product or service if it is not backed in from the beginning into the plan.

6-Project Risks

What are the risks to the project and the product in terms of development and outside disturbances?

In this document, you need to list all factors internal and external that might cause the project be delayed or fail.

For each risk you identify in this document, you need to create a contingency plan to show how you will handle the risk. Risk management is an integral part of a good project planning.

7-Project Reporting/communication plan

It is important to keep every member of the team and each stakeholder in the project aware of what is going on in the project.

You need to create a communication plan as to how and when project information is distributed. Who gets what information and how often. Many projects fail due to lack of proper communication and collaboration.

Binfire supports the three project management methodologies described here for proper project planning. Try Binfire for free and see the awesome results you and your team will achieve when using the right project management tool for your project.

Binfire is used in leading universities like University of Southern California (USC) Marshal school of management, University of Oregon and many other Universities in the USA and abroad to teach proper project management to MBA students. It is the right tool for startups and SMBs.


David Robins


David Robins is the founder and CEO of Binfire. David studied at both Cornell and MIT, and was the Director of Software Engineering at Polaroid for 11 years.

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