30 Golden Rules for Creating a Realistic Project Plan

By Dominic Moss MAPM MCITP MCTS on LinkedIn Pulse

Over the past 20 years I have met numerous individuals who aspire to create the perfect project plan. Whilst their dedication to the cause is unquestionable their expectations are probably best described as unrealistic and that will ultimately lead to disappointment.

Perfection and fit for purpose are two subtly different things. I am not advocating carelessness or low standards but a more realistic and workable approach to project planning.

Computer based tools provide us with the means to craft sophisticated and valuable project schedules, however using a tool does not automatically ensure a perfect project plan. Back in the mid 1990's I was issued with a portable computer that ran a project scheduling software package. This was back in the day when few people in their roles had access to a computer let alone one that could be carried with you. We would visit potential customers and proceed to produce a project plan using the computer, the output was invariably regarded as being beyond question as it was computer generated - in this day and age we are more aware of computers and appreciate that their outputs are only ever as good as our inputs.

A project schedule is an indicative guide rather than a definitive timetable. Producing a precise and 100% accurate project schedule is nigh on impossible as not everything always goes to plan and we cannot always anticipate every possible eventuality that might arise in the prosecution of a project.

However you should strive to build a realistic and workable project schedule to act as your reference point for you to manage and control your project and the following suggestions point as to how you can use Microsoft Project to provide this information.

1.     Use “Project Information” to specify the Start Date for your project, for your own sanity and peace of mind stick with the default option “Schedule from Project Start Date” so that all tasks begin as “soon as possible”.

2.     Use Auto Scheduled Task Mode not Manually Scheduled Task Mode.

3.     Employ a consistent “Task Type” for all tasks in the schedule. The default is Fixed Units not Effort Driven. Fixed Units being your available resources which is the most common restriction facing most organisations.

4.     Break your project down in to stages or phases, these can be represented by Summary Tasks which provide a high level strategic view of the project. Repeatedly ask the question “what do we need to do to do this?” This will dissemble your project down in to its constituent tasks.

5.     Engage your team in the planning process, they may alert you to risks you are oblivious to or solutions you would never have thought of. Involving the team also allows them to identify dependencies and how team members are dependent upon each other. It can also foster a sense of engagement, common purpose and a sense of valued recognition.

6.     Mark the end of each stage or phase with a Milestone.

7.     Ideally Outline Level 1 tasks or “Top Level Tasks” should be purely Summary Tasks, if you have tasks or Milestones at this highest level of detail they can sometimes corrupt the calculation of the critical path.

8.     Allow Summary Tasks to display discrete sections of the schedule, avoid using “Blank Rows” to differentiate sections of your schedule.

9.     If you want to show the overall duration of your project use the “Project Summary Task” this will leave Outline Level 1 tasks as representing the stages or phases of the project schedule.

10. Don’t link Summary Tasks to each other or to or from any other task in the schedule, Summary Tasks should reflect the schedule not affect the schedule.

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Tags: MS Project , Planning
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