General project planning tips to help you stay on budget and schedule
1. Appoint a project manager
The clue is in the name. For your project to get off to a rocking start, you need a fearless leader. Someone who is “laser focused on the details” (via TeamGantt) and can lead the project direction and align the team while dealing with multiple stakeholders, agendas, budgets – not to mention the client!
Fancy yourself as the right person for the job? Check out this post for some critical advice: So you want to be a project manager? Here’s everything you need to know.
2. Set strategic project goals and KPIs
Goal setting can get out of hand, and fast” – Trello
From the macro goal you want to achieve to micro goals and milestones along the way, it’s important to set specific objectives to keep your project and team on track.
- Make sure your team is aligned on the goals, so they’re working towards a common purpose.
- Find a way to match personal and professional goals, so that you can better tap into every individual’s motivation. The good news is you don’t need to do this alone – catch up with the team and ask them what’s important to them!
3. Use project management software
A whiteboard and post-it notes have their time and place, but when you’re dealing with a project of tremendous scale and complexity, having an end to end project management software is going to be a lifesaver.
Back in my agency days we had a “piling system” – an inefficient way of storing all paperwork at the end of a project in giant folders. Needless to say no one would look through those archives, like ever.
So do yourself a favour and start using an all-in-one online job management system! Some of the many benefits you’ll enjoy include:
- Everything all in one place. Instead of having to use multiple, disjointed systems (a time-tracking software, a file manager, a tool for communication etc…) WorkflowMax provides everything you need to manage your projects from end to end. We also integrate with over 30 add-ons so you can add firepower to the software if needed.
- Easy timesheeting. No more trying to capture staff time on bits of paper or clunky spreadsheets – staff can even enter time on the go if they’re on site or out and about, with the handy WorkflowMax mobile app. Not convinced? Here are 20 instant benefits of implementing time-tracking software in your business.
- Easily keep track of project status, track job milestones and view what’s in the project pipeline.
- Powerful reporting capability gives you insight into project efficiency and lets you see exactly how much profit you’re making on the job.
4. Establishing channels of communication
Poor communication can cause project delays, frustration, and all-round bad mojo. Make sure you avoid the above by creating an environment that’s open – where people know they can ask questions, share ideas, voice concerns. What are the communication tools or apps you’re using? How often are you checking in with the team and/or the client? Are you, as a manager, always available?
Status meetings, communication plan - always know what’s happening
5. Set expectations
“The best way to set expectations is early and often” – Guide to Project Management, Managing Expectations
Hand in hand with Tip 10, managing expectations is a big part of successful projects. Instead of dropping a bombshell at the last minute, if you have good communication processes in place and are focused on keeping stakeholders in the loop throughout the project, you’ll be able to manage expectations. For more information, check out this nifty guide on managing expectations.
6. Review previous, similar projects
It’s easy to forget this one – after all, once a project is done, the temptation is to shelve it away and make room for the next one. But learning from the past is incredibly valuable. Again, if you’re using a system to manage your projects, you’ll be able to dig out job templates and previous reports and repurpose them – saving time and effort.
7. Celebrate successes
While ticking off the big milestones feels awesome, it’s just as important to stop and acknowledge the little successes along the way. This might be a weekly shout-out to that week’s high performers, team lunches or pats on the back. Celebrating success is a tangible way of marking progress, creates confidence and positive, feel-good vibes that will only set you and your team up for the next challenge in the best possible way.
Read more here: Why you should celebrate your wins.
8. Selecting the right team
When selecting a team, you want to make sure they meet all your requirement. Understanding the project scope will help determine what skillsets you need in your team. If you’re responsible for assembling the A-team, be conscious of things like: Are there going to be clashing personalities? Is there likely to be drama worthy of reality TV?
Here at Xero we use DISC profiles to understand how various team members work and while personality tests have their limitations, they certainly are helpful in illustrating differences in work preferences. Drift classifies people into “makers” or perfectionists – an interesting way to look at it too!
Key things to ensure are:
- Get them involved them from the beginning
- Know their strength and weaknesses
- Ensure they understand the project goals and schedule
9. Have senior level buy-in
The role of executives in your business is to support all company-wide projects and ensure projects link with their company's goals. As part of this, executives champion projects, assist in conflict resolution, provide guidance, and provide the budget and resources for success. No having your executives on board will not only be negative for you project, it will also make your job a lot more difficult. Engaging senior executives early and often is a good way to involve them in your project and helps to limit their perception of any nasty surprises.
10. Use an appropriate project management methodology
In order to successfully tackle any project, you need some kind of plan in place. This plan is more than just a schedule of who does what and when - it defines your whole methodology - how you plan to tackle the project, deal with risk factors, manage your resources, and test each iteration.
Enter project management methodology. By choosing an established project methodology, you don’t have to reinvent the process every time you start a new project - you can just set out the steps and go! Everyone can benefit from a structured approach to project delivery, in doing so, running your project will become faster, smoother and more efficient
Just make sure you pick the appropriate methodology, after all not all methodologies are appropriate for all projects. Luckily we can help. Head over to our blog here.
Core process to manage budget and schedule
With the general tips out of the way, let’s look at some key tried and tested processes you can use to (try) ensure that your project runs on time and to budget.
1. Create a project plan and maintain it
A Project Management Plan as a formal approved document that lays out the overarching strategy for how a project will be executed, monitored and controlled. Project Management Plans organise and contain complex and interconnected threads of information. No single person can store and retain all the detailed elements of a large project. To learn how to create a project management plan, head to our post here.
2. Define the project scope at the outset
This is your hero statement or executive summary that will keep the project focused. It should be available to everyone working on the project. It is a written document that clearly lays out:
- Core aims and benefits of the project
- Primary objectives
- Significant milestones
- Revision time and other allowances
3. Define the budget at the outset
Before any project begins, the project manager might face the largest challenge of anyone on the team, determining the project's budget. They will need to decide the baseline budget that is set at the beginning of the project, and as the project forges ahead, continue to monitor and adjust the budget according to actual costs incurred during the course of the project.
The project budget serves as a guideline and includes all costs for a given undertaking by a company or a team within a company. Calculated costs include the likes of human resource costs; the cost of materials specific to the project; office resources and consumables. With so many variables, the project budget is not intended to resemble an invoice but is a guideline to help keep the team on task and the client aware of the ongoing costs. The project manager, along with a budgetary committee or lead developer, calculates these potential costs.
4. Determine the critical path
Focussing on the critical path can help you deliver a project on time, or even ahead of schedule. So what is it and how do we determine it?
- List all necessary tasks and estimate time: use the info you prepared in your Project Schedule process.
- Prioritise the tasks: this will fall into line of what needs to be completed first, but you must also decide which tasks carry the highest priority.
- Make a Gantt Chart: Be sure to use the time estimates you determined previously and adjust tasks based on priority
- Determine the critical path: The longest path of tasks on the Gantt chart is you critical path. Your project should never run any longer than this. Use this to track your progress and keep on schedule.
5. Create a risk management plan
Think about and document all foreseeable risks and potential problems. Risk management forms part of your project management plan and should not only detail potential risks but put in place preliminary ways to manage, contain and reduce risk. Common risks include:
- Unrealistic time-frames
- Unrealistic cost estimates
- Sudden changes with clients or customers
- Budget cuts
- Changes in staffing and resource
Project risk management should define, analyse and respond to any risk that arises over the life cycle of a project. This will assist the project to remain on track and meet its goal. Risks are problems that haven't eventuated. If identified risks become realities, they are then referred to as ‘issues’. Risk management identifies, categories, prioritise and plans for risks before they become issues.
6. Create a project schedule
The project management schedule is a document that outlines tasks that need to be completed, the order that they should be done, what resources are required, how they will be distributed, and long the varying tasks will take. Ultimately, a project schedule helps project manager communicate and collaborate with their team members and stakeholders, ensuring a project keeps on track.
For more info on how to create a project schedule, head over to our blog on project scheduling.
7. Initiate the project with a kick off meeting
Engage everyone who will actually be working on your project, you may even want to approach stakeholders and clients. A group brainstorming sessions is a good way to start. All these parties will have unique insights into how long things take and what their capabilities are. You can even win some buy-in the process.
8. Set realistic timings
For any project, what can be achieved daily is ultimately restricted by the number of hours in the day. No matter how hard we work or how many people we put on the job, there is only ever 24 hours. So why is it than that some businesses achieve so much more in their time than others? The answer lies in effective project time management. To set realistic timings, consider following a plan schedule management process to get you on track.
9. Set schedule reviews & forecast resource usage
Setting project schedule reviews is a key success factor in managing any project. If you are not regularly meeting with your team to review your schedule, it becomes difficult to ensure everyone is working on the right tasks and progress is tracking along with what is planned.
Project managers should also review the number of people currently working on a project and the project's future resource needs on a weekly basis. Doing so will ensure that you're fully utilizing the resources you have and that you have the right resources ready for the rest of the project. Regularly revisiting the resource forecast will help keep your project budget on track and avoid scope creep.
10. Be able to identify red flags and act quickly on them
If you have been a managed more than one project, you’ll be better aware of what your “red flags” are and how they can go on to impact your project. With this in mind, you can start to keep an eye for them coming up and making adjustments accordingly, instead of being reactive to the whole scenario. If you are new to the scene, consider getting your team involved to point out obstacles that may come up, and take note of what does come up in your current project.
11. Have a contingency plan in place
We all know that no project is perfect, no matter how much planning we put in place, something out of our control will come up and put us off task. As a project manager, you need to adapt accordingly and proactively to any variable to minimise its impact. Foresight is a great asset here. Put together a contingency plan for each phase and milestone of your project. Use your past project experience to inform what may come up and what it is the best way to deal with it. Be prepared.
12. Track project team members' time
The importance of time tracking should not be underestimated. It’s not just about menially logging hours and timesheets; time tracking is the fuel that powers project work.
Tracking time also lets you get an overview of what you and your team are doing. This is significant, after all, the two great unknown in business are understanding how much time and resource projects take. With this knowledge, you will be better informed when managing and allocating resources, you can justify human resource decisions, and most importantly, have a realistic idea of project timeframes.
Overall, the data generated in this process is a goldmine for increasing productivity. With the right tools in place, you and your team can boost efficiency, motivation and focus without the need to additional effort or resource.
Looking for a tool to easily manage this for you, WorkflowMax is it. Read more about time tracking here.
13. For larger projects, continuously forecast against the original plan
If you completed your project schedule process you should have been left with a baseline schedule. This baseline schedule remains fixed, so it the perfect point of reference to your project timeline. By continually checking in on where you sit against your original plan, you can quickly identity any gap between expected delivery date and the current tasks progress.
14. Close the project formally and measure the performance against goals and KPIs
At the completion of your project, it is a good idea to do a final, step-by-step review. If you've documented each step throughout the project, you've made your task of final review much easier. Examine what went well, and in what areas you fell short of your expectations. The information you gather can be very helpful when you begin to plan your next project.
What can you do if you find your budget or schedule slipping?
Let’s say you find yourself halfway through a project with both the budget and schedule slipping out of your grasp. Even worse, both your manager and client are breathing down your neck… What can you do?
Your first priority as a project manager is to try and establish the cause. If you start looking for remedies without knowing the cause, you are likely to find yourself in the same situation down the track. Start by reviewing your original project plan. After all, it clearly hasn't worked as planned. Look at your resource allocation, work processes, dependencies and time constrained activities. If something is wrong here, it should quickly become apparent.
Once you know you can move onto the next step, finding a solution. You don’t need to contact the client just yet. What solution presents itself best to you is likely to be determined by where you are in your project schedule. At the beginning? You will have more options at your disposal. If not, don't worry, not all hope is lost! Let’s look at some of the key options below.
Project recovery techniques:
1. First things first
To recover not to recover, that is the question. This is not a bad place to start. If there are factors outside your control, there may be no point in trying to recover. Consider the following:
- Have needs changed? If so, should the current project be tossed and a new one started?
- Have priorities changed? If so, consider putting your project on hold.
- Is there still enough fund? If not, consider how more can be allocated or should your project be halted altogether.
2. Compress your schedule
If you have put together a project schedule , you have two compression techniques at your disposal to get things back on track. These techniques help you complete certain tasks faster through the effective application of resources.
- Crashing is a method where extra resources are assigned to a task. Obviously the question arises as to where you get these resources and an increased cost if often associated.
- Fast-tracking is another method. This is where tasks are rearranged to that they can be completed simultaneously instead of sequentially. However, use this cautiously. This method comes with the risk of tasks and changed being overlooked and slowing the schedule down even further.
3. Prevent any further changes to scope
Scope creep is one of the damaging things a project faces. If a scope is constantly changing, it will be like hitting a moving a target. Usually tackled at the start of a project, there are some things you can do now to alleviate your issues:
- Develop a shared business vision
- Define the project scope
- Get the pricing right
- Sign the dotted line
- Use project management tools
- Learn to say no!
For more info, head over to our post on how to beat scope creep.
4. Reduce the scope of work
Perhaps the reason you are here is because the initial scope for your project was too big and couldn’t be completed in the time allocated no matter how hard you tried. If this is the case, consider revising the scope and getting things back at a manageable level. Start looking at things you can remove or perhaps push out a phase to a later date.
5. Reduce the project team
If your budget is a more pressing issue than your timeline, consider reducing the amount of people in your project team. Obviously with less human resources your expenses will be reduced, but remember, you will need take into account the resulting extension to your timeline.
6. Remove unnecessary meetings
Ever been invited to a meeting that you have gone out of your way to attend, all just to sit in a room for 2 hours hearing about a topic that has no relevance for you? Meetings are a big time sink, so start being a bit more proactive about what meetings you need and who needs to be at them.
7. Reallocate or swap resources
Perhaps you are finding that certain resources just aren’t working for you, perhaps certain staff aren’t as efficient as you first thought, or perhaps certain tasks could be sped up with more resources. Consider allocating resources short term or swapping them to areas they may be more productive. Just remember to consider implications that may occur elsewhere in your timeline.
We are with you when we say no-ones likes overtime, but if your schedule is that far off track, it may be needed in the interim to turn things around. Motivation and morale are likely to drop if you if overtime is extensive. It is best to be open and honest with your team from the outset and put a end date in place for people to work too. Rewarding them at the end also won’t go amiss.