Do you have a significant problem or opportunity you’re trying to solve? The stories that follow will illustrate how to create a project plan to solve any problem or opportunity in six steps.
My team lead came to me with a problem. “The team and I have looked at this every which way, but no matter how we slice it, there’s no way we can finish this job. We’re afraid we’re going to be fired.” We didn’t know it then, but by communicating the team’s concern, she sparked a conversation that would enable us to create a project plan to solve that problem.
“We’re going to fail,” she said.
When we discussed it, she had half a dozen good reasons that it was impossible for us to finish the work.
However, when we looked more closely, we also saw what would be required to resolve each of those problems, and we made a “wish list” for senior management.
It turned out that the $50,000 price tag of that wish list was far less than the multi-million dollar revenue the project would deliver. Our request received all required approvals the same day, and the team succeeded.
How to create a project plan in 20 minutes, so you can start to work on your biggest challenge or opportunity without overthinking it, getting overwhelmed, or getting stuck in analysis paralysis.
See the six-step process we used to create our project plan and use it to create yours:
I believe you’re here for one of two reasons:
You’ve got a problem to solve, but you don’t know where to begin, or
You’re not sure you’ve got a problem, but you must make a change.
While it may seem unbelievable:
- You can make a workable plan even if you don’t know the exact solution.
- Executing any plan requires applying the scientific method, which is nothing more than a process of trial and error.
- Using the scientific method amounts to creating and testing a series of hypotheses, or theories, about how to proceed at each step, then refining the plan and improving as you go.
- While it’s possible to create a large, extended plan that appears very complicated and complete, most complex initiatives create rough plans initially and continuously refine them as they go.
Fact: Elaborate plans are good fiction and bad practice.
Here are a couple examples:
Due to popular fiction, and wildly complicated things like moon landings, we’ve become convinced that plans have to be long, tedious, ultra-detailed, and nearly impossible to coordinate or execute. But the fact is, few things in life are as predictable as a moon landing: due to the physics involved, it could be planned down to the second. In fact, it had to be: in the final analysis, if they got the timing right on a few key maneuvers, everything else pretty much took care of itself. The underlying reason for this is that gravity is ultra-reliable: it was the secret weapon of the mission planners.
Due to the common news of big companies failing projects, many have become convinced that if they can’t get it right, nobody can. But the fact is, making big projects bigger is a business model practiced by corporate managers and consultants everywhere. In the final analysis, anyone who can’t successfully grow their organization and explain how someone else should pay for it won’t be successful in business management.
Business and consulting managers’ jobs depend on ever-expanding budgets and scale. When budgets go the other way, somebody gets laid off…
You may be less concerned about playing politics and games to grow a budget if you’re still reading. You won’t find much of that here: I could have done better as a professional consultant and corporate lackey.
Instead, like me, you’re interested in figuring out how to create a project plan, solve problems, manage change, and maybe even change your life.
How to create a project plan that works: OKRs
Keep reading, and I’ll show you a modern management practice used by growth companies like Google and Intel, who were initially more interested in results than budget bloat.
Instead of assuming every element is knowable and controllable (this has never happened in my experience, and management books and case studies are full of evidence and reasons why), instead, a good plan offers simplicity, which is great when you want a lightweight planning process and a simpler path to quick results. Google knows this. Intel knows this. It’s only the big-budget-stuffers who need to justify size, and only the bozos with more money than brains, or a compensation plan that rewards it, are willing to defy logic and reason to believe otherwise.
Could you create a project plan in six steps?
- Identify your overall Objective.
- Define some goals (Key Results) that would indicate you’re moving toward your objective.
- Identify some actions you can take to move toward achieving your goals.
- Name some people who could help you achieve your goals.
- Identify some ways your environment (the various places you spend your time) may help or hinder you from reaching those goals.
- Ask those people for help.
I’ve included for you the six-step process I use to create project plans and use it to create yours. It’s based on my 20 years of professional project management and the simple planning process used by the best businesses in the world:
Now it’s time to update your list of goals with actions and initiatives you and others can fulfill to help you realize your goals.
- It may help to think about one product goal at a time and write whatever intermediate goals and actions will be necessary to meet them.
- Similarly, write whatever actions come to mind where people and places are concerned.
- With your ‘new, improved’ list of actions and goals, your new goals may also raise new actions to take. Write those down too.
Act: Create or iterate on your plan:
- Identify your Objective.
- Define your list of Key Results (like SMART goals) that will indicate progress toward your objective.
- Create a list of actions and initiatives that will enable you to make progress toward achieving those goals.
- Review your list of goals and actions, and rank them into whatever order seems most reasonable for the available schedule and resources.
- You may wish to start with easy actions and ‘low-hanging fruit’. These have the immediate benefit of demonstrable success early on, inspiring and inspiring continued action and progress.
- You may see there are things that are clear LMT required before other things can be completed. Of course, schedule these earlier in your plan.
- Finally, you may see some things can be broken down into smaller items or tasks. Breaking these down helps to visualize the work to be performed and facilitates faster starting and finishing of them, as the easier a task appears the more quickly we are to start and finish it.
As you create this list, it can seem overwhelming. So much to do!
- Don’t worry.
- Take a long, slow, deep breath.
- Repeat the deep breath and exhale cycle one more time.
- You only need to do one thing at a time.
- You only need to ask one person at a time to do one thing.
- Every action you take on these areas is progress in the right direction.
- Any thing you see to do that you are not doing or where you’re not seeing progress, is a place to look more closely and ask, “how can this work be broken down into smaller items that can be started and finished more easily or quickly (write about the two-minute and 10-minute rules)?” and “who else can I ask about how to do this?”, then ask them!
How far you’ve come
If you’re following the planning process begin detailed throughout this blog, your Power Board (or whatever you’ve chosen to call yours), now has your:
- Product definition
- The Plans you created before and in this lesson
Next: Ask your key team members how they’d improve the plan
Caution: Don’t get stuck now, and don’t get attached to your plan, unless you intend to go it all alone.
Note: To get the best results in any undertaking, NEVER go it alone.
Take a team.
Take the right team.
Next: Enlist a team to help you create a plan
“None of us is as smart as all of us.”–Ken Blanchard
“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”–Warren Buffett
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”–Dwight D. Eisenhower
Now we have preliminary purpose and initial goals defined, and we’ve assessed our people and places. (Here’s a link, in case you missed the first part of this section. Don’t worry, it’ll open in a new window and leave this one open for when you return.)
Next, we can share our goals with our people and get their help and support.
Share your goals and other ideas. Ask their opinion. Record their feedback.
Create a project plan with your team.
This will help improve your goals and product designs, and it will give your team members the opportunity to become committed members of your team who will help you meet your goals.
“To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.”–Johann von Goethe
Clarify your purpose. Master your mindset. Define and execute your plan.
Things don’t always go as planned, so it’s helpful to have someone in our corner, who you can rely on to support you and keep you moving in the right direction.
“Everyone’s got a plan until he gets punched in the mouth.”–Mike Tyson
As we begin and create our first product descriptions, goals, and plans, we will occasionally alter those in response to lessons learned. We’ll also modify our plan to take advantage of new opportunities and challenges that arise.
After you’ve defined your purpose, and identified your people (team) and places, it’s time to continue working on the elements of the plan and hand off ownership and execution of the plans you’ll direct others to manage.
“Always, Always have a plan.”–Rick Riordan
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it.
Create a Project Plan with Your Team: Improve, expand, and detail your goals.
Share your goals broadly and courageously.
Feeling fearful, embarrassed, or hopeless about sharing?
Share your goals with others, and ask for their reaction and support.
One of the values of diversity in teams and brainstorming is: others have a unique perspective that enables them to see how to improve our work. If nothing else, they bring a set of biases and beliefs that are not constrained by OUR personal history, so they’ll speak of the things we won’t, and they’ll not be bound by the beliefs and assumptions that have restricted our thoughts and actions.
Create a Project Plan with your Team:
- Supportive family members and friends.
- Core team members.
- Extended team members.
- People in online groups and forums.
- People in your Mastermind group
- Facebook group members and friends
Please look at the six-step process I use to create project plans and use it to create yours. It’s based on my 20 years of professional project management experience and adapted from the planning model used by Google, Intel, and the best businesses in the world:
A case study: how to create a project plan
The lead software developer on my team came by my desk to tell me she needed to tell me something.
She wanted to talk in private, in a conference room, apparently due to the sensitive nature of the message.
Once in the small room, she broke the news.
“We’re screwed. The team and I have discussed it extensively, and there’s no way we can finish this project with current requirements and schedule. There’s a risk we may be fired.”
While it sounded like we may need a miracle, I also knew, from the extreme language and emotional content, maybe we just needed to reframe the situation.
We Worked Together
“Ok,” I said. “I get it. Can we discuss this in a little more detail? I’ll deliver the message to management, and I’ll support the team, but I need to take complete information when I do.”
“Sure,” she said. “I thought this conversation was going to be harder than this.”
“No,” I said. “Everyone involved knows we’re operating in reality. There are limitations. But they need as much advance notice as possible, and they need enough information to understand alternatives. If we can provide that, we all win together, one way or another.”
“Wow,” she said. “We were afraid you might throw us under the bus.”
“No,” I said. “Wherever we go, we go together.”
I asked what circumstances had the team conclude it would be impossible to meet our goal.
We created a project plan
Because we already knew the objective and the key results we named above as the first two of six parts of a plan, there were only four more questions to answer.
Our tech lead listed several things we lacked or needed: the team lacked understanding of a specific technology, needed software licenses, access to subject matter experts, and more computing hardware.
I asked her to define the missing things in detail.
- Exactly what could go wrong (the risk).
- What resources or mechanisms would be necessary to address the risk?
- The schedule impact of acquiring the missing resources.
- The financial implications of acquiring the missing resources.
That afternoon we created a plan and expanded the team
On a whiteboard, in bright blue marker, I itemized what was missing, what we needed, the schedule and cost impacts.
The list filled the whiteboard with blue lines and lettering:
|What Could Go Wrong||What We Need||Schedule Impact||$ Cost|
|We don’t have the right tools||Software||1 Week||$5,000|
|We don’t have the right knowledge||Software Training||2 Weeks||$4,000|
|We need a short term mentor||Software Expert||2 Weeks||$20,000|
|We don’t have a Test Environment||Hardware||4 Weeks (in parallel with development work)||$20,000|
“Is there anything that’s missing that would hinder our ability to succeed? Is there anything else that would improve our ability to deliver?”
“No,” she said. “I hate to say I came to you certain it can’t be done, and now you’ve convinced me it’s possible.”
In fact, I hadn’t convinced her of anything. I just respected her concerns, asked questions, and helped her build a risk plan that would save the team and the project.
“We can do it if we get these things, and we can’t do it if we don’t. Is that right?”, I asked.
I wrote up the project change request for about $50,000.
I wrote up the project change request for about $50,000. It was just a sliver of the value of the overall initiative.
Because we’d identified and communicated the concerns early, the team was able to accommodate the additional responsibilities in the existing schedule.
Furthermore, because the requests were small dollars and very practical, it was an easy funding choice for our project sponsor. The approval arrived the same day.
We created a plan and performed a miracle
We ordered the resources, the team completed the work, and achieved the objective they’d said was impossible.
Let’s create a project plan to achieve your objective
Are you ready to create a miracle too?
Are you ready to see a new perspective on your own situation, and have confidential help, 100% committed to you and your success?
Join me in an elite coaching session honed by decades of business innovation experience and thousands of interviews, coaching sessions, and years of project execution experience.
In that coaching session, we’ll do three things:
- Identify your most important priority for the next 12 months.
- See the #1 thing that might hold you back, and likely eliminate it right on the call.
- Create a path and a plan for you to get there.
I guarantee you’ll also see some things about your current situation that you hadn’t previously realized — all good — and things you can put to use starting right now.
Click this link, complete the application, and schedule the free call on the page that follows.
This is a deep, committed, 90-plus minute coaching session where I guarantee you value.
If we see a shared opportunity to continue working together, we will discuss that at the end of the call.
For more information
More About Plans
- Merriam-Webster’s definition of “plan”
- The type of plan described in the case study is commonly called a “risk plan,” risk management plan, risk response plan, or even a premortem. I’ll leave specific definitions to Ph.D.’s and certified project managers. My primary goal here has been to quickly illustrate that it is fairly easy and straightforward to develop a practical plan to move forward most reasonably sized projects in most situations. While very complicated methods have been devised for identifying and managing risks, the most important fact is that if they’re necessary, the large size and complexity of the project are the biggest and gravest risks of the initiative.
More about how to execute a plan successfully
- There are more advanced (and complex) methods for creating and managing large plans or larger teams. I’ll happily work with you to help you choose tools that may be best for you. Here are a few that might work well:
- How to set (and achieve) goals based on your personality type
- People: Build Team. Grow Great Results.
- Co-creation: The Power of Onlyness, by Nilofer Merchant
- As much as possible, keeping projects small assures success from the beginning.
- The causes of project failure have been studied for decades, and no matter how many causes are identified they always come down to three things that are fundamental to effective relationships and leadership. These same three things are inevitably the things employees and team members find absent in poor work environments. They’re also the things Ph.D.s and investors inevitably say were absent in the unsuccessful initiatives they study:
- Clear objectives and goals.
- Effective communication among team members.
- Alignment and coordination of teams and team members.
- This risk planning event went well, and the results were positive because we had a motivated team of assertive, proactive professionals. Learn how to build, assess, and lead a good team.
- Adult displeased businesswoman with papers in light modern office: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels. Link.
- Photo of woman standing in front of blackboard: from Pexels.
- Practice: Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash. Link.
- Team collaboration: Photo via Pexels.
- Warren Buffett: By Mark Hirschey – Work of Mark Hirschey, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower: By White House, Public Domain, via Wikipedia Commons. Link.
- Johann von Goethe: By Louise Seidler – “Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens. Bd. 5” (1905), Deutsche Literaturgeschichte, Seite 113, Public Domain, Link.
- Mike Tyson: By Brian Birzer http://www.brianbirzer.com, CC BY 2.0, Link.
- Rick Riordan: By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link.