Make a Plan

So far in this series we’ve mostly covered what it takes to be a successful web project manager, or indeed any manager, the personality traits and the social challenges. This is all arguably the most important aspect of a successful project — you don’t need to have the best team with the best skills but if you have a great team that work really well together then you’re sure to produce successful work.

Now though let’s get into the fun stuff — the actual tasks your individual role covers and how to best perform them. Here is where it starts — planning. Meticulous, hair-raising, sweat-inducing planning.

The web is as littered with articles about project management planning as library shelves are stuffed with books on the topic. Each one stuffed with corporate jargon and calling for specific methodologies that must be strictly followed lest the world cave in on you. They make different assumptions about how much time you have or what sort of team you’re working with. The realty is that every project and every team is different. A PMP qualification isn’t necessarily going to get you anywhere. There are no hard and fast rules and so we shalln’t be covering such rules here. Instead we’ll try to be more general, talking about things you need to think about when devising your own system.

Web project managers should get into the habit of thorough and consistent planning so as to make it a repeatable and reliable process for every project. Skills learned in doing so are entirely transferrable to other roles too. Thorough planning is especially important for freelancers and smaller agencies, where there is less room for error as mistakes could have a bigger impact on the overall business. The industry is moving quickly and is reaching a level of maturity that necessitates professional management processes to ensure quality that stands-out among ever-increasing competition. Project owners and clients are becoming more web savvy and capable of judging the professionalism, competence, and consistency of a production team.

Why do we even bother planning? We have a team of experts to hand. Sit a designer down in front of a blank canvas with some content, and a developer with a code editor, a functional spec. and a style guide, give them a few weeks and all will be good right? Project planning, or the lack of it, can lead to extremely different results. By planning well we’re able to clearly define and manage the project scope, identify and minimise risks, and break the allocated time into manageable chunks and tasks. We can determine realistic milestones, track progress, maintain control, and secure resources.

This all sounds totally obvious to you now, right? But as you’re surely aware, detailed and effective planning that covers all of these bases is not always done, for varying reasons.

As much as you want to create and maintain a great plan, you may simply not have time. A good plan may take more than a day. It may take a week, or more. Massive projects demand massive planning. Perhaps you’re juggling multiple projects at the same time and you can’t devote all your time every day to this master plan. It will seem like your planning time is stalling everything else; your content person or designer might be idly waiting. More time = more cost. Ideally, you might argue that a good plan always saves time and money in the long run, but depending on the project this might not always be the case. You may need to break down the planning itself into smaller, more manageable chunks, just enough to give you a detailed and immediate overview of the tasks at hand. Unfortunately, effective planning does demand your full attention. If you’re going to be handling other projects then you’ll need to allocate time in the plans for those projects so that you have time to plan this one. Try and isolate yourself from meetings and emails and phone calls, for at least a day, so that you can sit down and deep dive into this particular project. Consider it the same as taking a sick day, which is beyond your control, and may also impact other projects. You always manage to catch up afterwards and the situation you’ll be in afterwards, equipped with a good plan, is akin to being well-rested and raring to go.

As the old saying goes, time is money. When quoting the cost for a new project you may have to put in more effort justifying the time needed for planning because it doesn’t directly produce deliverables that the client or projects owner values. They want a website or app, not a 50 page PDF document; the plan is for your team’s internal use, so why should they be paying for it? Project management likely takes between 10–20% of the total time that it takes to put the project together, much of it planning. You’ll need to ensure that budget is available for this before starting. Lack of budget is no excuse for lack of planning. If no budget is available for planning, then you’ll probably have to recuperate it from time needed for content, design, development, and testing.

Maybe you’re a small agency or solitary freelancer and your project scopes and budgets are so small and simple that you don’t deem planning necessary. But the more you do it the quicker and easier it will become. For smaller projects it’s even easier because you have less to focus on. And focus is the key — a good plan that you can share with all stakeholders not only looks professional but keeps everyone focused on the goals and what they need to do to achieve them.

Not everyone can put together good plans. Effective planning is an acquired skill. Being at the point of starting any plan is a daunting feeling no matter how experienced you are or how many books and articles you’ve read. Experience is always the most valuable commodity when refining any skill. Lack of it, however, is never an excuse to dismiss planning as a waste of time or not worth the effort. You may still manage to keep your boss and your clients happy with the work you deliver despite not putting together detailed plans; you’ll still get paid. It’s like cooking. You could buy a packet that you just add to the pan and heat up, or you could buy all the ingredients and make the dish from scratch. You’ve been told making it from scratch will yield much better results. You may even believe this. But it’s a lot of extra effort, probably costs more, and will only yield better results than the convenient packet if you know what you’re doing and have cooking experience. Eventually though, after you’ve cooked the dish many times, you will be able to put it together quickly, easily, and will enjoy it much more. If you invite people to try it, they will notice the difference between the packet and the home-cooked version, and they will be impressed with your efforts.

Sometimes, a plan just fails entirely. Nothing goes as planned and you end up pulling your hair out. This can only be put down to bad planning so you’ll have to adjust your planning techniques. Other times planning might actually just over-complicate things. Plans that are long, boring, filled with waffle or unnecessary detail may be ignored or not fully absorbed. Overly detailed plans that demand updating GANTT charts every few hours or wire-framing nearly empty whole pages may be unrealistic to stick to at best, or at worst just a waste of time. Sometimes you just need to get stuck in and start doing rather than just planning. You have to assess for each project the level of detail required and the when you should update the schedule to perform crucial tasks. Remember that the goal is to maintain control over the project, so you’ll need to be flexible enough to know when to plan and when to do.

Another reason why planning is often lacklustre or skipped entirely is the sad fact that planning isn’t always fun. Some people like it, while others hate it. Sometimes you might just not be in the mood. If you really don’t feel like it then there’s no really good advice other than to try and change the way you plan to make it more enjoyable and rewarding. If you come out on the other side of a project knowing that your plan helped and made your life easier, if everything “went to plan”, then you’ll surely be rewarded with the smug feeling of success. If you really can’t find a way to make planning enjoyable, even tolerable, then sorry… it’s just something you’re going to have to do. You might want to try hacking your brain to associate it with something positive, some other reward? On days you allocate to planning, ignore all your emails, cancel your meetings, setup an isolated room, make it comfy, and play your favourite music, and get your favourite snacks. Soon you’ll start looking forward to planning days.

If you’ve worked with other managers before, you’ll be aware that there are different kinds of planning personalities. There are those who don’t enjoy detailed planning and dive straight into production. They are up and running quickly and solve problems in an ad-hoc fashion, as and when they arise. On the other hand there are those who start slowly, meticulously planning every step along the way, slowly gaining momentum, ensuring every task is completed successfully before moving on. The hare and the tortoise, so to speak.

To a large degree, your success with either approach will depend on your personality and on your team. The hard, fast, slap-dash approach may seem crazy but people do manage to pull it off, producing a successful project on time, on budget, and to a high standard of quality. If you can motivate a highly skilled team and confidently make snap decisions then why not? Maybe someone who spends all their time putting out fires inherently has a greater sense of purpose? Maybe being so obviously busy acts to motivate the team? Maybe they just feed on the adrenaline? More likely they’re just extremely busy people facing the weighty pressures of cash flow, unrealistic and inflexible deadlines, project overload, lack of project management skills and experience, or all of the above.

A safer approach may be to try and prevent fires before they start. It may be less glamourous but also less damaging. Someone who takes this more measured approach probably has more time and fewer projects on their hands, is more experienced, has a fear of emergencies and unnecessary risk. Maybe they even enjoy meticulous planning and have had success with it before.

Which approach is better is largely irrelevant as it’s beyond your control. You can’t change your personality. Likewise, especially in smaller teams or agencies, you are just going to have to skip all or most of the all-important planning phase due to time constraints and suchlike. You know it’s bad but you don’t have an option. You can only take comfort in knowing that the more blazes you have to battle, the better you will be come at reducing them to smouldering embers. You may be able to rely on having a placid client or a stellar team and that will go a long way towards helping you produce a great end result. But the minute something goes wrong and you lose control, you’re going to struggle reigning the project in when you have poor documentation, ambiguous or non-existent scope definition, and unclear sign-offs. The more organised, detailed planning approach at least offers you more consistency. You’ll become accustomed to what kind of problems occur at what stages and you’ll be better prepared to comprehensively deal with them. Without a detailed plan you also have no recourse when facing angry clients. Armed with a plan, you can clearly point out the how, when, who, what, and why when things inevitably go wrong, allowing the client to understand and accept the situation. Essentially, there’s no guaranteed way to project success. There will always be unforeseen problems which you may be able to pre-empt or prepare for, or may not. What you can guarantee is that the probability of success is much higher, and the risk much lower, when you have a plan and you stick to it. That ought to keep everyone focused.

This is part of a series of blog posts about web project management, drawn from years of personal experience. If you’d like to find out more about me then please visit my website: