Prevent the Project to Nowhere

The humble project plan can help avoid the anguish that comes with a poorly envisioned project.
by | April 7, 2011 AT 2:00 AM

Every public-sector manager is aware of those time-wasting, energy-sapping projects to nowhere. Half articulated by some senior official and passed down the food chain in a game of bureaucratic telephone, they can haunt an organization for months. Meetings are held, data gathered and trees sacrificed in a flurry of activity to satisfy the demands of a distant authority.

These projects generally take one of two paths. They die an obscure death or they flame to life again when an exasperated senior official rails in frustration at the lack of progress -- whereupon the fruitless cycle is repeated.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A simple project planning document written before embarking on any public-sector undertaking can save a boatload of anguish down the road. By putting in writing the scope, goals and other key information of a project, a written plan enables those beleaguered minions doing all the work to constructively dialogue with those up the organization.

In some cases, a written project plan will uncover a lack of clarity around what is being proposed. In other cases, it will highlight a painful mismatch between desired outcomes and available resources. In every case, a written description is a great tool to ensure that senior management, project leaders and team members are all on the same page.

What is a project plan? A simple 2-page document that provides a high-level description of an undertaking: Who is responsible? What are the deliverables? How much is it going to cost? It doesn't need to contain a detailed Gantt chart of to-do's in minute detail, but it should provide a high-level timeline of a few key milestones.

Here are some categories that every project plan should include:

Background: Why are we embarking on this project? Is it to save money, cut cycle time, reduce manpower, improve customer satisfaction, reduce errors or comply with a new law? If possible, include any current data available. The background gives context for why the project is needed.

Project description: What exactly is being done? Are you introducing a new process for renewing a business license? Building a new website? Opening a branch office? State in concrete terms what the project accomplishes.

Personnel: This section should list all the key players and their roles. They will include the project sponsor, or person driving the project; the project leader, or person responsible for day-to-day management of the project; project team members, including an estimate of how much time they'll be devoting; and external participants, which may include consultants or individuals from other organizations.

Project goals, deliverables and milestones: What are the major deliverables of the project, and what are the dates of completion? A deliverable can be a report, a training session, a working software program, a new policy or any tangible accomplishment.

Remember to make your goals SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based). Improving customer service, for example, is not a SMART goal. Neither is educing time for application approval from three weeks to three days by August a SMART goal.

Project success measures: This section helps us answer the question, "We will know that the project was done well if?" Whenever possible, list some potential indicators of project success. What measures could be used to assess this project's impact? Will there be a customer survey or other tool to assess success? A deliverable tells you whether or not you completed the project, while the success measures tells you how well you completed the project.

Cost, benefit analysis and return on investment: When a project is in the proposal stage, this section is used to provide justification for management to devote needed resources. As the project nears completion, it is helpful in comparing the initial budget with the actual budget, and determining if the expense was really worth it after all.

A goal without a plan is a mere wish. Taking the time to create a project plan is almost always a worthwhile investment. Unless, that is, you enjoy spinning your wheels on an endless treadmill to nowhere.