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Project Planning - Work Breakdown & the Grand Project Plan

The following article is in line with my series of articles on project management where I intend to pen down the journey of a project manager from initiating the project to its closure.

In this article, I am embarking on a writing journey to help my readers with the aspects of starting off the planning phase with setting and reaching milestones. Identifying and breaking down tasks into their minute details to be assigned to the respective owners. Finally, ends with developing the grand project plan to be used as a living artifact throughout the project execution.

Wall full of post notes

Content of the article


Before the project planning phase, the following needs to be taken care of;

  • The project manager gets assigned

  • Project goals, scope, and deliverables have to be approved

  • Team members get assigned

Importance of project planning

Why is project planning so important, following points illustrate the necessity of it;

  • Understand the work needed to achieve the goals

  • Coordinate efforts and timelines with other teams, contractors, and vendors

  • Identify and prepare for risks

  • Get "buy-in" from key members of the project team

  • Demonstrated to stakeholders that the team is taking care to start the project with a detailed plan

The following are the essential ingredients of project planning;

  • Schedule

  • Budget

  • Risk Management Plan

Kickoff Meeting

A project kick-off meeting is a formal start to project planning. It is the first meeting in which a project team comes together to establish a shared vision, align on the project's goals and scope, and understand each person's individual roles within the team.

A meeting is on with three people

Who to invite

  • Project team

  • Stakeholders

  • Project sponsor

Agenda (with an effective time duration to be followed)

  • Introductions (approx. 5 min)

    • Team member names

    • Project roles

    • Fun facts

  • Background (approx. 5 min)

    • How the project came to be

    • Why the project matters

    • Set a shared vision

  • Goals and scope (approx. 10 min)

    • In-scope

    • Out-of-scope

    • Target launch dates

    • Milestones

  • Roles and responsibilities (approx. 10 min)

  • Collaboration (approx. 10 min)

    • Shared project tools and documents

    • Communication expectations

  • What comes next (approx. 10 min)

    • Set expectations and action items

  • Questions and discussion (approx. 15 min)

    • Gain clarity on meeting topics

    • Ensure the project benefits from the diversity of thoughts, experiences, and ideas

Importance of Kickoff meeting

  • Establish a shared vision

  • Align on scope

  • Build team rapport

  • Ask questions and offer insights

  • Set expectation

Kick-off meeting best practices

  • Set the right time

  • Set the right length (no more than an hour)

  • Invite the right people

  • Designate a notetaker

  • Set the agenda

  • Share the agenda

  • Stick to the agenda

  • Follow up after the meeting

Milestone on the road with direction

Tasks and Milestones

A project task is an activity that needs to be accomplished within a set period of time and is assigned to one or more individuals for completion. The work of a project is broken down into many different project tasks.

A project milestone is an important point within the project schedule that usually signifies the completion of a major deliverable. Milestones are significant checkpoints in the project, and keeping track of them helps ensure that the project is on schedule to meet its goals.

Milestones and project tasks are interconnected

This is the journey of work

Deliverables > Milestones > Project Task

Importance of Milestone

Why defining, setting, and sharing the milestones with all & everyone in the project is important, the following points state the relevance of;

  • Setting milestones gives you a clear understanding of the amount of work your project will require.

  • Milestones can help keep your project on track.

  • Reaching milestones can seriously motivate your team.

  • Milestones also serve as a great check-in point to highlight your progress to stakeholders.

  • Milestones must be completed on time and in sequential order.

If the team misses the mark to complete a deliverable tied to a specific milestone, it could set back your project schedule

How to set Milestone

Setting milestones is a very important step and needs to be developed with care, the following points reveal the procedure for it;

  • The first step to setting a milestone is to evaluate your project as a whole.

  • Once you've determined your milestones, the next step is to assign each one a deadline.

  • To get a good sense of timing, you can connect with teammates to discuss the tasks required to reach each milestone and get their estimates for how long these tasks will take.

  • When you set deadlines for milestones, you will also want to consider the needs of your stakeholders.

Set tasks to identify milestones

Setting tasks can help you clearly define milestones. You can do this in two ways:

  • Top-down scheduling

In this approach, the project manager lays out the higher-level milestones and then works to break down the effort into project tasks. The project manager works with their team to ensure that all tasks are captured.

  • Bottom-up scheduling

In this approach, the project manager looks at all of the individual tasks that need to be completed and then rolls those tasks into manageable chunks that lead to a milestone.

Milestone settings Pitfalls

  • Don’t set too many milestones.

  • Don’t mistake tasks for milestones.

  • Don’t list your milestones and tasks separately.

Writing list of task

Work Breakdown Structure

A WBS is a deliverable-oriented breakdown of a project into smaller components.

It’s a tool that sorts the milestones and tasks of a project into a hierarchy, in the order they need to be completed.

An example of work breakdown structure

Steps to build a WBS

  • Start with the high-level, overarching project picture.

  • Brainstorm with the team to list the major deliverables and milestones.

  • Identify the tasks that need to be performed in order to meet those milestones.

  • Examine those tasks and break them down further into sub-tasks

After completing WBS, the project manager should have;

  • A set of discrete project tasks that ladder up to each of the milestones

  • Assign those tasks to members of the project team.

Tasks are typically assigned according to a person's role in the project. To assign tasks between two or more team members with the same roles, the project manager might take into consideration each person's familiarity with the tasks at hand with the consideration of each teammate's workload.

One less obvious benefit of assigning tasks is that it creates a sense of personal responsibility for team members.

Disucusion on the project plan between two collegues

The Grand Project Plan

We further our discussion on developing the grand project plan which is a living artifact for the entire project journey, referred to and updated as required.

The project Schedule is the anchor for the project plan.

The following states the major components of the project plan;

  • Tasks

  • Milestones

  • People

  • Documentation

  • Time

In addition to the above-stated components, project managers should also include the following in the project plan:

  • Scope and goals

  • Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

  • Budget

  • Management plans

Management plans consists of the change management plan, risk management plan, and communication plan.

Time Estimation

Time estimation is the most important aspect of the project plan and is quite different than effort estimation;

  • Time estimation is a prediction of the total amount of time required to complete a task.

  • Effort estimation is a prediction of the amount and difficulty of active work required to complete a task.

A mechanical timer watch is started

An unrealistic effort estimate can negatively impact a project schedule when you underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. Whereas too much optimism can lead you to overlook potential risks that could set your plans behind schedule.

Your teammates will have the most realistic understanding of the amount of work required to complete a task and should be able to provide you with the best estimate.

Sub-tasks refer to smaller tasks that are required to complete a larger task. Asking the teammate assigned to the task for their estimate is likely to yield a more accurate estimation.


A buffer is an extra time added to the end of a task or a project to account for unexpected slowdowns or delays in work progress.

  • Task buffers refer to extra time tacked on to a specific task.

  • Task buffers should be used primarily for tasks that are out of the project team's control.

  • Task buffers should be used more sparingly for tasks within the project team's control.

  • Adding a buffer to every task could lengthen your project schedule unnecessarily.

  • Project buffers differ from task buffers in that they provide extra time to the overall project schedule.

Be realistic when estimating time and effort for a project. Take the time to carefully evaluate potential risks and their impact on the work, and talk to your team members about these challenges.

Don’t be afraid to escalate potential concerns to management. Optimism is a trait of a great project manager and leader, but it can adversely affect your projects when it comes to time estimation.

The planning fallacy and optimism bias

The planning fallacy describes our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task, as well as the costs and risks associated with that task, due to optimism bias.

Optimism bias is when a person believes that they are less likely to experience a negative event.

As a project manager, you should aim to balance being aware of the planning fallacy with keeping an optimistic attitude about the project, even as things change.

Being on the lookout for “what-ifs” is a key project management skill.

Considering situations that could affect whether or not the project is completed on time can help you overcome the planning fallacy.

Capacity Planning

Capacity refers to the amount of work that the people or resources assigned to the project can reasonably complete in a set period of time.

Capacity planning refers to the act of allocating people, and resources to project tasks. And determining whether or not you have the necessary resources required to complete the work on time.

A top view of road junction with multiple fly overs

Critical Path

The critical path refers to the list of project milestones that you must reach in order to meet the project goal on schedule. As well as the mandatory tasks that contribute to the completion of each milestone.

The critical path includes the bare minimum number of tasks and milestones you need to reach your project goal.

The following steps help determine the critical path;

  • Identify which tasks can happen in parallel vs. which tasks can happen sequentially

  • Determine which project tasks have a fixed start date

  • Determine which project tasks have the earliest start date

  • Identify if a task has float (also called slack)

Float refers to the amount of time you can wait to begin a task before it impacts the project schedule, and threatens the project outcome.

Tasks on the critical path should have zero floats.

How to create a critical path

The following list the steps towards capturing the critical path;

  • Step 1: Capture all tasks - The project manager can use WBS

  • Step 2: Set dependencies

    • Which task needs to take place before this task?

    • Which task can be finished at the same time as this task?

    • Which task needs to happen right after this task?

  • Step 3: Create a network diagram

  • Step 4: Make time estimates

  • Step 5: Find the critical path

The below diagram illustrates the steps toward constructing a house with all the major work and time duration. With the visualization available critical path can be decided as per the requirement and understanding.

Finding the crtical path

We can also calculate the critical path using two common approaches:

  • The forward pass

  • The backward pass.

These techniques are useful if you are asked to identify the earliest and latest start dates (the earliest and latest dates on which you can begin working on a task) or the slack (the amount of time that task can be delayed past its earliest start date without delaying the project).

The forward pass

Refers to when you start at the beginning of your project task list and add up the duration of the tasks on the critical path to the end of your project. When using this approach, start with the first task you have identified that needs to be completed before anything else can start.

The backward pass

It is the opposite of forward pass—start with the final task or milestone and move backward through your schedule to determine the shortest path to completion. When there is a hard deadline, working backward can help you determine which tasks are actually critical. You may be able to cut some tasks—or complete them later—in order to meet the deadline.

Soft skills

Discussion in project management without a note of soft skills would be a cold drink without ice.

Soft skills are personal characteristics that help people work effectively with others. The following points in mind will effectively help in leveraging soft skills;

  • Asking the right questions

    • Open Ended Question - One that can't be answered with yes or no

  • Negotiating effectively

  • Practicing empathy.

A word game with pieces showing practice

Project Plan Best Practices

The following list of the best practices will be developing a project plan;

  • Careful review of project deliverables, milestones, and tasks

  • Giving yourself time to plan

  • Recognizing and planning for the inevitable (things will go wrong)

  • Staying curious

  • Championing your plan

To keep the project running smoothly, it's also important to understand the expectations, priorities, risk assessments, and communication styles of your stakeholders and vendors.

Project plans are critical because they are used to capture the scope and time it takes to complete a project. As a general rule, it is best to use a spreadsheet for a simple project and project management software for a more complex project. Regardless of what tool you use, be sure to include this key information:

  • Task ID numbers or task names

  • Task durations

  • Start and finish dates

  • Who is responsible for what

An anchor of a good project plan is a clear schedule containing all the tasks of a project, their owners, and when they need to be completed.

Gantt Chart

A Gantt chart is a horizontal bar chart that maps out a project schedule. Gantt charts display a highly visual representation of project tasks, who is responsible for what work, and when tasks are due.

An example of Gantt Chart in smartsheet

Kanban boards

Kanban boards are useful for all kinds of projects, they are typically most suitable for project teams working in an Agile project management approach.

Kanban boards are used to:

  • Give a quick visual understanding of work details and provide critical task information.

  • Facilitate handoffs between stakeholders, such as between development and testing resources or between team members who work on related tasks.

  • Help with capturing metrics and improving workflows.

Sticky notes with writng as done, to do and doing

Creating cards

The following provides a short glance at creating practical cards to manage the tasks with two sides, used for putting up information as required;

Front Side

  • Title and unique identifier

  • Description of work

  • Estimation of effort

  • Who is assigned to the task

Back Side

  • Start date

  • Blocked days

  • Finish date

This is the end of the first part of project planning, further will write on the final part of project planning which will consider budgeting, risk management, documentation, and effective communication strategy.

To further read related articles please check the links below;



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