Project planning can be a complex, stressful and lengthy business. Yet, while no two projects ever pan out the same way, many are often derailed by the same problems. From underestimating resources and task durations, to failing to set strict project boundaries, here are five of the most common project planning oversights to watch out for – and what you can do to prepare for them.
1. Scope creep
It’s a familiar nightmare: the size and focus of your project develops wildly away from what you planned and budgeted for. Scope creep is one of the most common reasons projects fail. It might seem like the project goal is clear and agreed upon, but project planning and management is complicated. There are so many variables, and when you have your eyes fixed on the end result, it can be all too easy for more and more changes to creep in without you noticing. Suddenly, your project has spiralled totally out of control.
Scope creep is largely a communicational problem. To try and limit it, make sure everyone is absolutely clear on what your project does and doesn’t intend to solve. You need to secure their agreement towards the projects goal in the early project planning stage. This is also when you should think about how you’re going to handle those small requests that will crop up, no matter how well you plan. Clarifying project contingencis and risks is the best way of keeping these visible and knowing how to respond to them.
Calculating how long a project will take is notoriously tricky. When you factor in overly invested clients and the pressure to set competitive turnaround times, things get even trickier. Don’t make the mistake of suggesting an over-optimistic schedule. The same goes for budgets – don’t go in low because you think it’s what the client wants to hear; be honest and realistic. While tight deadlines have their productive benefits, setting ambitious deadlines can seriously harm your client relationships and place undue stress on employees. Remember, if you want to secure repeat business, you need to deliver on your word.
The simplest way to accurately gauge how long a project will take and what it will cost is to use project tracking. They capture all tasks that go into each project phase – from iterations and client communications, to internal team coordination and project management itself – from which you can create average task durations. By recording all unforseen activities and overrunning ones, it can also help you work out a reasonable amount of time to set aside for dealing with unpredictable elements. While it’s not a precise science, the data from project tracking provides a useful skeleton for mapping out similar future projects.
Lack of understanding and miscommunication create a multitude of problems during project execution, but their roots can usually be traced back to the project planning stage. Everything from clarifty of goals, to laying out individual roles and task ownership depends on effective, transparent communication. When miscommunication happens, no one wants to take the blame for it, but the minute fingers are pointed the success of your project is compromised.
It seems obvious, but it’s worth underlining: prioritize regular communication. Even if you understand just how important this is at the start of a project, once a project is underway it’s still incredibly easy to brush off catch-up meetings and skip reports when you’re busy, which can risk you losing alignment with the rest of your team and misreporting status to stakeholders. While you’re still in the initial planning phase, set boundaries for how often you’ll have meetings and what tools you’ll use to share information globally. Then once you’ve kicked things off, stick to this schedule to keep on track.
Mapping out all your work is only the first step – next, you’ve got to actually do it! Allocating project work isn’t as easy as it seems: employees may be booked up for weeks in advance on other projects or are planning to take vacation during your project roll-out. Even when you do have enough resource, problems still arise when people don’t have the necessary skills for specific tasks. So resource matching needs to be part of project planning: you need to find the perfect person for a task and make sure they have the availability and capacity to complete it in time.
Again, technology can help make sense of the mess here. Project planning tools can help you map out all employee schedules, so you quickly pinpoint availability and book resources in advance. From a managerial point of view, they’re also super helpfu for making sure work is distributed fairly and balanced across all resources across projects. A good planning tool will show you when you try to allocate too many hours to one person!
While we all know it’s bad, it can still be hard to control our protective impulses around our work – particularly if we’re new to project management. It can seem natural to want to check up on everyone to ensure they are doing what they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to. But it can come across as hugely patronising and interpreted as a lack of trust.
If you’ve clearly defined the communication channels and protocols everyone will use to share project progress, you shouldn’t need to do any more digging for information. People are increasingly seeking opportunities for autonomy in their work, and respecting people’s professional space is central to establishing that.
For many new managers, micromanaging is actually more a reflection of their own uncertainties – not a lack of confidence in their colleagues. To make sure your questioning isn’t interpreted the wrong way, provide people with an open platform for sharing project feedback and ideas. Aside from providing you with assurances and insight, asking people for their input is a really good way to get them invested in the project.