How Detailed Should Your Project Plan Be
I’ve worked for a number of organizations and customers in my project management career, each one having a slightly different take on the expectations of what a project plan should look like in terms of amount of detail (i.e. the finiteness of task breakdown). In my experience, there is definitely a certain ‘level’ that a project plan needs to have in order to make sure that everything has been thought of but how much is too much? Let’s explore.
Your project plan is going to be viewed by a number of different stakeholders and individuals throughout the project. Each with their own perspective – some wanting the 30,000 foot view, others needing to see that level of detail to help organize their days. Your plan needs to be organized enough so that your 30,000 foot people can easily determine what the major phases are, when the expected start and end dates are and when they can expect to be done. The best way to achieve this is to make sure that your plan is broken out into major phases with the sub-tasks and details organized under each phase to help comprise the dates (and costs) of each phase. This way it’s easy enough to do a rollup of the plan (depending on what tool you are using, for this discussion I’m assuming MS Project) to show this information at a high level quickly.
Now comes the fun part – how detailed do you need to make your plan so that everyone knows what they need to do without getting too detailed and extinguishing any area for innovation on your project. I’ve done plans in the past where I planned tasks down to the hour and for a small few individuals who it worked for, I found it stifled creativity of those who the tasks were assigned to (i.e. “the project manager has told me virtually all the keystrokes I need to do so I’ll just do that instead of thinking about my goal and how it should be done”). Not to mention it is incredibly arduous as well as very difficult to maintain when planning to that level of detail. What if your plan needs to change? What if the client wants new or different functionality? The goal of the project manager is to work with the team to ensure that things are progressing according to plan, not constantly be updating and changing the plan because of minor tweaks in the project direction.
On projects where I found the most success, I developed project plans that suited my needs as well as all the other stakeholders, including (and probably most importantly), my project team. Work with your team to develop a comprehensive task breakdown and make sure your tasks are broken down to a low enough level that everyone understands what the objective of each task is without getting over-prescriptive on how to achieve the task – remember your plan is about putting tasks in the hands of capable team members, not about telling them how to do their jobs. A rule of thumb that was taught to me many years ago that I find is a great point for task breakdown is not allowing any tasks greater than 24 hours of effort into your plan. If you have a task over 24 hours of estimated effort, it should probably be reviewed to see if you can logically break it down even further.
Developing project plans that work for everyone is a constant (but exciting) challenge. Understanding the perspectives of your stakeholders will help drive the structure and detail of your plan. Happy planning!