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Here's how to go about planning a project, even if you have no experience. It all begins with a blank sheet of paper

Dear Bob ...

I've just been given a "wonderful opportunity" (management-speak for "assignment for which I'm completely unqualified but I have to succeed anyway"). Help!

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Project management for non-project managers" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

The assignment? I've been given a small project to manage. One problem: I've never managed a project before, so I have the proverbial blank sheet of paper and no idea what to write on it.

Any assistance at all would be greatly appreciated.

- Tyro

Dear Tyro ...

I'm trying to think of any way I can avoid shameless self-promotion and can't come up with one. Here it is: Buy a copy of my book, "Bare Bones Project Management: What you can't not do." I wrote it for you and everyone else who has been put in this situation.

But since this is Advice Line and not Advertise Bob's Books, let me give you a couple of fundamentals to get you started.

Begin with the understanding that "plan my project" has two entirely different meanings:

  1. Clarify what the project is supposed to accomplish.
  2. Establish the tasks everyone on the project team will have to undertake, and in what order, to accomplish it.

Start with clarifying what the project is supposed to accomplish. To do that, you first have to be clear about what the point is. With vanishingly few exceptions, projects with a point have a positive impact on revenue, cost, risk, or some combination. To be clear about the point of the project, every stakeholder (including every project team member) has to understand which of these it is and how the project is supposed to affect them. You aren't done until you have a comprehensive list of the project's work products (its "deliverables," in project parlance).

Once you know what the deliverable are and how they will result in the project accomplishing what it is supposed to accomplish, you're ready to plan the tasks. To do this, you need access to a highly complex tool, previously known only to middle school and high school English teachers, called an "outline."

That's right: If you can outline, you can plan a project. Otherwise you can't.

Start with the top level of the outline, which is "Conduct project."

The next level needs more insight:

  • Pre-project preparation.
  • Launch.
  • Execute project tasks.
  • Turn over project deliverables.
  • Shut down project.

Dig in one level more (here's a starting point for "Execute project tasks" which might or might not fit, depending on the type of project):

  • Establish business goals and desired outcomes.
  • Design solution at functional (high) level.
  • Confirm or revise design.
  • Design solution at next level of detail.
  • Confirm or revise design.
  • Create project description and estimate for implementation project.

This is just an example -- it might have nothing to do with what you've been asked to do, but it should illustrate the idea. You'll need to add at least one more level to this description, and probably a couple of levels, in order to achieve project-planning nirvana: Everyone knows what they should be working on, every week, and when it's due.

This should be enough to get you started. Much more and I'll find myself cutting and pasting the book into this blog (but at 54 pages that would be a lot of blog).

Good luck.

- Bob