11 Sure-Fire Tactics to Involving Your Team in Project Planning

Google something to the effect of “why do projects fail?” and you’ll get over 400 million responses. Many of these articles relate closely to what I have observed during my 40+ years in the world of IT projects.

Consider the findings described in an article by eSUB Construction Software (full article located at https://esub.com/why-do-projects-fail-how-to-avoid-project-management-failures/). The article identified the following reasons for project failures. These reasons are no different than ones I observed over my career:

  1. poor project planning
  2. poor management
  3. poor communication
  4. risk management gone wrong
  5. no accountability
  6. lack of visibility

Incidentally, do you see any in the list that is the result of technology or process failures? Perhaps the first one, but notice how the remainder are related to the people aspects of project management.

This article is an extension of my previous article, “This is Why Focusing on People in Project Planning Will Help Projects Succeed,” and therefore focuses on the only the first point – poor project planning. In my previous article, I made the case that if Project Managers conducted project planning as a people-oriented exercise rather than solely as a process-oriented exercise, they would lay a more solid foundation for project success.

Include the Project Team in Project PlanningConsider the following 11 sure-fire tactics to involve your project team – staff and end-user – in the project planning process. (Why 11? Because if it were 7 or 10, you might think they’re contrived. No, 11 is a good number for the length of this article.)

  1. Define the project goals and objectives.
    (Key contributors: project stakeholders)

What is the project and why is it being conducted? This seems obvious. But too often the what and why are not well defined, and project plans are created based on ill-defined and ambiguous project goals. Unless the overall project goals and objectives are well understood and fleshed out enough to complete initial estimates, it will be difficult to develop a project plan with any confidence.

Only the client’s key stakeholders can define their goals and objectives for the project. The stakeholders identify their expectations regarding overall project scope, budget, and timeline. In my world, as an IT contractor, these were provided in the form of Requests for Proposal (RFPs). In organizations that have internal IT staff, they need to be developed in collaborative workshop sessions where the Project Manager elicits input from key stakeholders and formulates them into a statement of goals and objectives in the Project Business Case document.

The key stakeholders have both power and influence to assist in project governance. They will be the ultimate judges as to whether the project is successful, and success will be determined by how well the project delivery meets their goals and objectives. So why not get their buy-in right from the beginning by including them in this foundational activity?

2. Involve team members in project planning. 
(Key contributors: project staff)

Project planning typically involves the Project Manager and a small group of her senior team leads locked in a room, pulling all-nighters, pizzas shoved under the door, until voila! – the project plan is birthed. Much of the angst in creating the plan comes from arbitrarily cutting resource estimates to stay within budget, purposefully building in CYA (cover your assumptions) tasks, and efficiently linking the tasks with optimal predecessor/successor relationships and lag/lead times.

Of course, the resulting plan almost always leads to the inevitable project execution death-march, as the Project Manager pounds on team members to execute their tasks according to the schedule.

Most Project Managers don’t involve their teams in planning, yet hold them responsible for executing the plan. Ideally, all team members should be involved in project planning, both during the early stages of the project and in later in detailed phase planning. True, with large teams this is impractical, but obtaining input from key representatives of the various sub-teams is invaluable.

Project Managers should involve the teams in early project planning meetings. Stakeholders should present their goals and objectives so that team members hear the client’s sentiments for themselves. Brainstorming, visioning, and buy-in sessions are all critical to formulating creative ways to flesh out the phases, activities, tasks, and assignments. As a result, the entire project team develops a common set of expectations and a consensus on the approach to tackle the job at hand.

3. Employ specialists to augment project planning.
(Key contributors: project specialists)

In addition to involving the team members in project planning, project specialists (e.g. data architect, hardware architect, data conversion expert, business process reengineering expert, scrum master, and others) should be employed to develop approaches and estimates for the more specialized facets of the project plan. No Project Manager, no matter how capable, is expert in every facet of project delivery. The final integrated project plan must instill confidence in the entire project team that it can be executed realistically.

4. Solicit input from the client staff.
(Key contributors: client staff – end-users and subject matter experts)

The IT project staff have one perspective of how to deliver the project. Client staff (end-users and subject matter experts) also have a perspective based on their detailed knowledge of the client organization’s business processes. Soliciting input from client staff that loaned to the project provides valuable detail to help flesh out project tasks. Projects that involve client staff from the outset, solicit their input throughout the duration of the project, and keep them informed during project execution, are more successful than those that do not. In my own experience, the most successful projects were those that co-located client staff with the IT staff for maximum collaboration.

5. Remember the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me).
(Key contributors: Project Manager, stakeholders)

It’s so easy in project planning to focus strictly on what is team members must contribute to the project execution. But what about them? How do you answer the team member who asks, “Yes, I’m excited to work on this project; but what’s in it for me?” There needs to be more than just a bi-weekly paycheck to keep them motivated.

By the way, this point is equally applicable to the client staff that have been loaned to the project. They have been pulled from their day-jobs to serve on the project, and need to be assured that their time on the project will help them grow in their careers rather than set them back.

While the Project Manager needs to focus on project goals, she also needs to consider individual team member’s goals. At this early project stage there may not be time to sit with each person individually to set personal goals, but team members should be informed that this will be done. Team members have a variety of individual goals: technology mastery, project management certification, self-management techniques, meeting facilitation, teamwork and collaboration skills, and a myriad of others. Reassure the team members that their personal goals will be addressed, and they will be motivated daily to help the project succeed.

6. Review the plan with the entire team.
(Key contributors: Project Manager, stakeholders, project staff, client staff)

The Project Manager should take extra time to summarize the entire plan using simple charts and narrative. The summary begins with a review of the overall goals, objectives, and benefits. It includes timelines, milestones, roles and responsibilities, agreed upon assumptions, methodology, opportunities for training, deliverables review processes, project celebrations, and other such critical components. The summary must communicate how the plan relates to the overall project success, what it means to everyone involved on the project, and how it will benefit the full end-user community upon completion.

The review session can be conducted in a big room, or over Zoom, or in whatever venue that can accommodate the entire team. The summarized plan narrative is then reviewed line by line. The Project Manager explains the thought process, past lessons learned, assumptions, and other contributing factors that went into building the plan.

This review session needs to be an opportunity for open discussion – no holds barred, no pulling rank – just open, frank, instructive discussion that leads to a common understanding of the plan. After all, some key concept may have been missed in the building of the plan. Better to find out at the outset than to execute a flawed plan that will need an expensive, project-delaying course correction later on.

This review has an additional benefit that must not be minimized. It establishes a project culture of professionalism, inclusion, competence, transparency, and pro-activeness. Project staff and client staff feel invested in the project and motivated to do their best.

7. Set expectations.
(Key contributors: Project Manager)

Seasoned Project Managers know that as the project progresses it will soon veer off-track if not managed to the plan. Scope established at the beginning soon expands to fill the space formed by the creative minds of project staff. Timelines stretch beyond the approved baseline. Requirements fall victim to statements like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we added this feature … ?”

This is where the Project Manager, with full support from the client’s primary Stakeholder, needs to get tough and set some non-negotiable expectations. He must outline formal requirements gathering and deliverables review processes before the project even starts, and communicate these during the project plan review session (#6 above) where the entire team is in attendance. Important administration processes such as project status meeting attendance and contribution, communication protocols, issues and risk mitigation, and code of conduct should be treated like a binding contract among team members.

Having solicited the team’s input in establishing the project plan, and then setting these expectations at the beginning of the project, the Project Manager is able to align the team’s aspirations with the project goals. Bringing the team into the process early on substantially increases the chance for a successful project.

8. Delegate.
(Key contributors: Project Manager)

Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group, noted, “If you really want to grow as an entrepreneur, you’ve got to learn to delegate.” The same holds true for Project Managers who want to grow in their project management careers.

Project Managers have a natural tendency to get involved in every work process. This may be possible in very small projects (emphasizing very small).

Of course, such micro-management only serves to create a bottleneck and slow project progress. It also creates resentment among those team members who feel responsible for their assigned tasks, yet feel that the Project Manager is meddling and obtrusive.

Hence the need to pay attention to delegating as an integral aspect of project planning. Delegating some of the planning process to the team takes the burden off the Project Manager’s shoulders. Additionally, the Project Manager gains insight into team members’ capabilities; and the team members become confident in their own abilities to handle their tasks. Delegating in this early stage of the project makes it easier to continue to do so as the project progresses.

9. Make the project plan visible.
(Key contributors: Project Manager, project administration)

One of the most effective ways to make the project visible is to develop several large, colorful wall charts showing the project timeline and milestones. A graphic of the project code of conduct cam also be created. These should be simple images, easily visible across a large room. They should be displayed in every team’s work area, as well as the hallways, elevators, lunch room, bathrooms (ok, maybe a little extreme). To keep team members’ attention on them they can be change up occasionally. Wall charts are a great way to keep the team consciously aware of what is to come how it is to end.

10. Establish a project repository.
(Key contributors: Project Manager, project administration)

A project repository that contains project deliverables, work products, works in progress, deliverables reviews, correspondence, status reports and other such project assets is an absolute must from the outset of the project. The repository must be properly indexed for easy access. Fast moving projects have no time for emails and their extensive threads, attachments, and distribution lists as the main method for keeping staff informed.

The repository’s first occupants are the project plan and initial documentation that contributed to the plan. Building the repository from day one sets the expectation for efficient access to information for the remainder of the project.

According to a study by McKinsey & Company (https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/the-social-economy), employees spend 19% of their work hours searching for and gathering information. That’s one day out of each week’s productive time! IT projects are notorious for incomplete or inefficient documentation and communication. Team members find themselves digging for information and setting up their own easy access processes for information that they refer to frequently. This is frustrating and demotivating.

A project repository aids collaboration and facilitates the team’s ability to share updates, report on project progress, and communicate efficiently across the sub-teams.

11. Have a project kick-off.
(Key contributors: Project Manager, stakeholders, project staff, client staff)

The project planning is not complete just because the plan has been reviewed, approved, and tucked away into the project repository. A signed-off plan is a major accomplishment, one that sets the tone for the remainder of the project. A kick-off celebration completes the process and cements in every team member’s mind that a major milestone has been achieved. And it was achieved as the result of a collaborative, consensus-building team effort – a foretaste of what is to come.

Project planning should not be a lone-wolf activity by the Project Manager and a few select individuals. The project team and the client staff on the project have a wealth of insight and experience that can contribute to the planning process. Involving them promotes buy-in and propels them to push the limits and perform as high functioning teams.

Merv Jersak
If you want your IT projects to come in on time and within budget; if you want your clients to be your best ambassadors and your project teams to be committed to your success; if you want to stop leaving money on the table – then Merv Jersak is the mentor and coach who will work with you to help attain the results to which you aspire. With more than 40 years’ experience as an IT Project Management and systems consultant, Merv works with IT solution providers and end-user organizations, focusing on the people aspects of project delivery to drive more profit to the bottom line and to have fewer budget overruns.

To learn more about Merv’s service offerings, or to hire him to speak to your organization, visit www.PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com.

EMAIL merv@PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com // LINKEDIN www.linkedin.com/in/mervjersak

52 Project Management Success Tips from Merv Jersak  •  Copyright ©2020. All rights reserved.