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Cheat sheet: seven easy steps to project management success

What can you possibly learn from a project management consultant? Let's find out..!

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From ditching the sticky notes to checking the viability of your plans, special guest speaker Bryan Barrow tells us his seven quick things you can do to ensure project success.

In general, you could say that projects have a poor track record of success. According to research by the Harvard Business Review, the average project comes in 30% over budget, and 70% over on time. Even worse, the larger the project, the less likely it is to succeed; about three IT projects in 10 with a budget of under $750k fail, rising up to seven out of 10 for those with budgets of £750K - $3M, or nine out of 10 for $10M or moreiii.

Your project doesn’t have to be one of these! If you’ve just been asked to take charge of a new project, here’s how you can create an effective plan in next to no time at all!

1. Start with the goal in mind

The key to success is having a clear, common goal that everyone understands.

Without a unifying goal teams are likely to go off in different directions; this often results in division, duplication and delays.

2. One team, one plan

Projects are about coordinating the activities of people and teams, but it’s common for each team to have a plan just for their part of the project. As a result, they all risk running into problems of coordination, because activities are not aligned and dependencies are unclear.

By creating a single, integrated plan you ensure teams work together, that activities are aligned and that risks are clarified and understood.

3. Ditch the sticky notes

Sticky note planning is popular but it has its drawbacks. These include:

  • Reliance on subject matter experts
  • Lack of consistency
  • Low levels of knowledge transfer

Planning with index cards which are pre-printed with the names of project artifacts overcomes this. You can find out more about the index card project planning method on Bryan’s website, here.

4. Agree the workstreams and key milestones first

It’s very tempting to dive straight into the details of how to achieve the project goal, but this is a common mistake.

Before getting down into the detail, it’s best to use milestones to map out the route to the project goal first. That way everyone is clear on what needs to be done before working out how to accomplish it. It also means that you will have a milestone plan that you can use to update senior management.

5. Pick your end products

In working what is required for each milestone – the end product - you’re being very specific about how the project will be delivered, again making it easier to report progress to senior management and project sponsors.

6. Include dependencies and review points

A winning project schedule is one that takes dependencies and constraints into account, so it’s best to build these in at the start. It’s also essential to build in points at which you can review progress. If the project isn’t going according to plan, it’s better to take corrective action early on, rather than when it is too late to turn back.

7. Confirm whether your plan is viable

Once you’ve finished your index card planning, you have all of the information you need to create your project schedule. Enter the milestones, dependencies and end products to create your basic schedule in whatever software you’re using. Send this out so that your subject matter experts and ask them to submit three-point effort estimates for the end products (best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case). Use these to run simulations that produce a range of likely finish dates and costs. This is a quick way of confirming whether your project is likely to deliver on time and on budget.

“Planning isn’t new, it isn’t difficult and it isn’t rocket science, but too many projects fail because they start off without a credible plan, without the right resources and without understanding the risks involved”, says Bryan Barrow, author of The Project Planning Workshop Handbook. “Index card planning is an approach to project planning that creates effective schedules on a consistent basis without relying on experienced project managers. Instead, it uses a framework for planning that anyone can follow.”


Bryan Barrow is a project management speaker and coach. He is the founder of Nova Consulting Limited and the author of ‘The Project Planning Workshop Handbook’ ($12.99, available on Amazon). Bryan will be speaking at the Leading Edge masterclass series ‘Project Planning – How to Get It Right’ in September. Book your free places here.

i Harvard Business Review (2011): “Why Your IT Project May Be Riskier Than You Think”
ii Boston Consulting Group (2015): “Large-scale IT Projects: From Nightmare to Value Creation”

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