The Project Planning Process
There are many planning methodologies, but none are perfect for every project. Understanding the project planning process will allow you to make necessary adjusts. You might need to document more, share more, or become more flexible. It all depends on the size of your organization, and the complexity of your projects.

A freelancer designing a direct mail piece doesn’t require a complex project planning process, however a team designing and executing a multi-channel marketing campaign requires a lot of planning, coordination, and documentation. Seth Godin sums it up well with “Bigger isn’t better, unless it’s different”. 

Let’s explore project planning process step-by-step: defining the project, assigning resources, and scheduling.

First, Defining the Project

Defining a project plan is a blend of fact-finding and relationship-building. When finished everyone should have the same goal and vision. Each person involved needs to understand the objectives. Don’t assume that you know what is best — listen. Each project is unique. You know the how, but only your client knows the why. Focus on the why.

A project is composed of hundreds of design decisions — equipped with the why you won’t need constant help. Explain this: your clients’ will understand. No one want to handhold you through the project. Learn to visualize your project plan with our step-by-step tutorial on building gantt charts in Excel. 

With the why, start defining the project’s objectives. Start with the big objectives — the themes or purpose of the project. Then break into smaller objectives, grouped into levels.

You have reached the right size once objectives are small enough that they can be completed without a step-by-step explanation of how. Objectives need to be smaller for more complex projects, but can be larger for more experienced employees.

Focusing on objectives instead of tasks will result in more:

  • Creative solutions. Your creative team can think different. Allow them to find the best solution, not just the obvious solution.  
  • Talent development. People join creative agencies to grow. At most agencies Juniors focus on their technical skills. Be different, let your people solve for the customer. You will attract better talent at great rates.
  • Employee engagement. People will have purpose. They will know the problems they are solving. They will know that they are making the world better, not just prettier.

You run a creative agency. Creativity isn’t just about pushing pixels, it is about understanding client’s goals.

Next step, figure out how the work will get done.

Your goal is to get the project done quick with the fewest resources.

You have the project objectives from step 1. Now, to prioritize the objectives. List any deadlines, and identify serial objectives. Serial objectives have to be completed one after another. 

You want to keep deadlines, and serial objectives to a minimum. They create dependencies that slow down the project. Emphasize this when talking with clients.

When possible, you want the freedom to complete objectives in parallel. This speeds up projects, and creates more staffing options. Multiple teams can complete parallel objectives simultaneously.

With objectives, deadlines, and serial dependencies identified, you are now ready to start assigning roles. Assign roles required to deliver each objective. What skills are needed for each objective. Don’t worry about naming names.

Now, group objectives together by roles required. You are looking for objectives that have shared roles. Overlap, gives you flexibility, and allows for a smaller team. A design agency working on a marketing website, probably has a lot of overlap. A team launching a new restaurant probably has very little — construction contractors, chefs, the maître d’, and designers have few overlapping skills.  

Now start assigning employees to roles.

Start with serial objectives, assign the same employees to linked objectives. Do your best to keep the team together. This minimizes work shifting to the next objective, and keeps the output consistent.

Next. With parallel objectives, you will eventually run out of employees for roles. This limits the number of simultaneous objectives you can complete at once. The nice thing is that you don’t have to keep the team together. Employees can shift in and out as available.

Once employees are assigned to objectives, it is time to assign employee hours. Forecasting hours can be challenging, but it is important to get it right. Time is your biggest constraint. It determines your profitability. This applies to both salaries or hourly pay, and fixed bid and Time & Material projects.

I recommend using your past experiences to determine the number of weeks, and hours to week. Visualize the number of weeks, and hours per week to complete each objective for each employee. Forecasting is a judgement; not a calculation. Your goal is to be less wrong, not exactly right.

You can also plan by Total Hours by employee. Assign each employee total hours for each objective, and add them up. To calculate total weeks: divide total hours by the weekly available billable hours for each employee. Most employees available billable hours, is lower than their total weekly hours worked.

Points & Hours. Using points instead of hours when planning is a great way to manage external expectations — especially if you are doing something for the first time. It allwos you to communicate how difficult one task is relative to another. However, points are a proxy. You still are limited by time. Even if you communicate with clients using points, Internally you should still do your best to plan using hours. That way you can optimize your biggest constraint — time.

Finally, Scheduling.

Now to figure out when the work can get done. We know why and how, now to figure out when. The first step is to pick a start date. This is complicated because you have other projects. When selecting start dates watch out for concurrent projects, interruptions, and overwork. While you might make the “numbers” work, you will reduce productivity.

  • Concurrent Projects require mental shifting, and each shift requires energy and time. When scheduling projects, you want to keep the number and type of concurrent projects in mind. Set a recommended limit, and try your best to give people at least one novel project.
  • Interruptions sap energy and motivation. It can be really hard to get into a project. People work best uninterrupted — focusing until finished. Avoid planning people to take a break from an objective.
  • Overwork reduced creativity. Creative work is motivated work. If your people are feeling overworked, they will struggle with motivation. Occasional long hours can be great, if they allow you to focus until finished. However, employees should feel appreciated for this dedication.

If you have a hard deadline, hopefully the client has brought the project to you with enough time to get it scheduled. Individual individual client deadlines need to take a back seat. You have a repuation to protect. Don’t jeopardize the quality of all of our projects for one. Client’s with deadlines, need to bring projects to you sooner.

In conclusion, the project planning process doesn’t have to be complicated. This is why we created Bric. Bric uses data from your timesheets to create more accurate project plans. Using data from timesheets we learn about your agency and your work. This allows us to automatically build project plans. With Bric you don’t have to go through each step of the project planning process. You just review and edit the recommended project plan. More accurate project plans will increase your employee utilization, profitability, and employee engagement.