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Ask a project manager which phase in the project life cycle is the most important, and they might say something like “the phase my project is in right now.” It wouldn’t be a bad answer—after all, a breakdown in any of the five phases can set a project on the road to failure, and critical challenges can arise at any point from inception to closing.

While every phase is important, the planning phase is usually the time when a project manager has the best opportunity to shape the future of the project. It’s also the phase in which the project manager does most of his or her hands-on work.

A successful planning phase is almost invisible after the fact, as the project team proceeds to work according to the schedule, budget and other plans that the project manager has developed. Mistakes in the planning phase, on the other hand, tend to be highly visible, and can damage the PM’s reputation. With those points in mind, let’s take a look at some best practices that can help every project manager get through the planning phase and position the project for success.

Get Your Team Involved

Project managers spend years learning how to create project plans and allocate team resources effectively. When it’s time to put all that training to use, you might be tempted to do all the work yourself and simply let the rest of the team know when you’ve plotted the course. However, doing your work in a vacuum can deprive you of valuable insights you might have gained from your other stakeholders. In recent years, more organizations have moved to the bottom-up approach to project planning, in which team members help determine task assignments, duration estimates and other aspects of the project plan. This sort of collaborative approach can take some of the weight off your shoulders and get your team engaged from the very beginning.

Set S.M.A.R.T Goals

Setting goals for your team is the essence of the planning phase. If you aren’t already using a formal framework for setting and evaluating project goals, consider using the S.M.A.R.T. approach for your next project. This methodology is intended to help project managers ensure that each team goal meets five important criteria:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time Bound

Many project managers who have adopted the S.M.A.R.T. framework have found that it helps them create goals that are more meaningful and more closely aligned with their organization’s overall strategy.

Don’t Ignore the Risks

Enterprise projects involve large numbers of people and large amounts of money. The rewards are greater when things go well, but the consequences are more serious when something goes wrong. It’s no wonder, then, that risk management has become an essential part of project management today.

As a project manager, you need to begin the risk management process even before your team starts working. Building risk management activities into your project plan from the beginning will help ensure that every stakeholder understands the potential challenges that might arise, and increases the chances that you’ll be able to identify and mitigate problems before they threaten your timeline and budget.

David Goulden
David Goulden, Product Director