Pre-Planning and Project Management Best Practices

Cost overruns, scheduling delays, reduced ROI, frustrated customers, and frustrated team members – all of these issues can be the result of poor project management.

For some reason we are willing to accept poorly managed projects in so many aspects of our lives. When a public construction project is announced, delays are expected. Nobody ever assumes the project will be finished on time or under budget.

It’s gotten to the point where this is the norm. Projects, large or small, rarely finish as planned. According to a Harvard Business Review study, one in six projects will result in a 200% cost overrun and a 70% schedule overrun.

I get it. When you increase the complexity of the project, you inevitably bring in more variables that could cause delays, unplanned changes, and impact deliverables. But this doesn’t mean that projects going off schedule need to be the norm. By pre-planning the project thoroughly ahead of time, many time and resource-consuming hurdles can be avoided.

Pre-Planning is the Key to Project Management Success

The pre-planning stage is often overlooked in terms of importance to the overall project. However, pre-planning is where the project is defined:

  • The team is set up;
  • Deliverables are established;
  • GANTT charts are drawn; and
  • Activities are delegated.

Seeing as how the entire project flows from this, it’s hard to believe why this stage is often overlooked or rushed through. In the excitement of getting a project underway, achieving deliverables, and enjoying results, teams may lose sight of how to properly plan and execute on the project. This can lead to increased frustration, delays, overruns, and reduced team morale.

Related Blog: Scope Creep: The Unplanned Cost of Complex Projects

Pre-planning can include a wide array of project-related activities – it doesn’t just need to be team identification, goals/deliverables establishment, budgeting, and scheduling. Pre-planning can (and should in most cases) include a range of other activities. This includes things like reviewing a needs assessment, conducting a ‘desirable and viable’ analysis (i.e. is the project outcome desirable/good for the business and is it realistic?), review existing processes/products/services, review of previous projects, rough timeline definition, and early stakeholder engagement.

3 Reasons Why Pre-Planning is Overlooked by Project Managers

So, why do people rush through pre-planning? There are many reasons why a project team might rush through this critical stage, but in my experience it typically boils down to 3 main (and sometimes overlapping) reasons:

1. Excitement to Get the Project Underway

Typically, at the outset of a project most of the team is excited, assuming they’ve been engaged in the development of the project. The team is usually anxious to find out their role in the deliverables, and to get started.

This can result in rushed planning meetings, poor role definition, and momentum pushing you in the wrong direction. Once team members get into the project, they may become easily lost, lose sight of the overall goals, or not know where there work fits with the rest of the team. All of this can easily sap the early momentum from the project, cause standstills, lost productivity, and schedule overruns.

Related Blog: How to Inspire Your Team: Communicate the ‘Why’ Behind Action

2. Internal or Institutional Pressure

The project team is handed a project from the board room, VPs and C-levels expect it to be done yesterday, and the project manager feels the pressure. In situations like this the team is entering the project with the wrong mindset.

Instead of working together with internal stakeholders, the project management team is put in a position where they feel like they’re working against their superiors. This could be a project-specific issue or speak to issues within the wider corporate-culture. Either way, the project team is not set up for success and it will be very difficult to achieve the outcomes.

3. External Stakeholder Pressure

Similar to institutional pressure, project teams may face significant external pressure. Customers want the deliverables yesterday, clients want the moon on a shoestring budget, and competitors are moving fast where you seem to be standing still.

So the project team rushes through the project to get something to market, fast, or the risk losing ground in the market. What they get out there as a deliverable, though, rarely meets expectations.

The Cost of Poor Pre-Planning

Although there are many other root causes of poor pre-planning, these are the ones I observe most commonly. At the end of the day the results are the same: budget overruns, schedule overruns, team frustration, client frustration, reduced morale, and complacency.

4 Tips for Improving Project Pre-Planning Activities

So, if pre-planning is so important and it’s so often overlooked – how can we correct this?

It’s not easy to fix the problem, especially when there’s a long-standing track record of poor project management. Institutional history can put you on a path that’s very difficult to correct. There are, nonetheless, ways to course correct and improve project management standards.

1. Engage Stakeholders Early

Stakeholder engagement is a critical component to any project’s success. It’s an activity, however, that can (and should) take place before and after projects. By meeting with stakeholders (which can include project team members, other employees, potential customers or other project beneficiaries) before and after projects, you can open a line of communication to help set expectations, ensure your perception of a project aligns with others’, and gain valuable intel for future projects.

2. Review Existing Processes and Standards

In many cases, poor planning is the result of bad processes. Project managers can make improvements by reviewing existing project and business processes. By asking the question “What is the environment our project exists in?”, managers may be better equipped to adjust and improve processes to support better project delivery.

3. Conduct a Review

Are you, as the project manager, the key bottleneck? Hopefully not, but by stepping back and reviewing your performance as a project manager you may be able to reveal some issues. Think critically on recent projects – what worked well? What didn’t? how did the team react to your leadership? Go back to your project teams and ask for feedback, conduct anonymous surveys, or ask a superior for help in conducting a review. All of this can help illuminate internal challenges and root causes of roadblocks.

4. Setup a Culture of Success

If you’re in an environment where project complacency is the norm, then you have to be the agent of change. This means setting new standards for projects, leading by example, and pushing your team to success. Just a note of caution – this may cause disruption to your team, so going down this path should only be done after you’ve engaged your team and outlined your goals, reasoning, and how it will impact everyone else.

Critically Evaluate Your Project Management Approach

At the end of the day, the goal of improving project delivery success is to reduce stress, improve outcomes, improve team morale, and improve your business. The options I’ve provided here are just some of the ways to look at improving project management standards.

Hopefully this post will give some cause for reflection and critical thought on how you manage projects, and this exercise will help you improve your management capabilities and project outcomes.

If you’ve experienced a breakthrough when it comes to pre-planning and project management, please share it in the comments section below.

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Rob holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Western University, and has published articles in international journals as well as given presentations throughout Canada and Portugal. His area of expertise lies in advanced manufacturing, international development, export market development, and automotive manufacturing. As a Program Manager at Mentor Works, Rob works with business owners to obtain funding to meet their growth strategies. Prior to joining Mentor Works, Rob worked extensively in various academic roles, software and ICT sales and development roles, and in quality control roles in the automotive industry.

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