Creating a rough plan

Welcome to our second topic post. In this article you will learn how to create a rough plan based on your defined goal. You will learn why it is important to have a plan and how you can create one.

First of all, why is planning useful?

As with defining goals, planning is about using your resources wisely, i.e. efficiently and effectively (see Defining Goals). Planning seems to be an additional effort in the first step. Often you already have many ideas how to realize your goal. That’s good! But just starting to implement these ideas leads often to the “onion” problem.

What is the onion about?

A project can be divided into different phases. According to A. Hemmrich these are the definition phase, planning phase, realization phase and implementation phase. There are many other classifications and approaches. Important is the following thought: If you invest insufficient time in the definition and planning phase, you will need more resources in later phases. A. Hemmrich represents the effort as a pyramid. You start from top to bottom and go through the individual phases. The pyramid shows that the phases become more effortful the further down the pyramid you go. If you invest not enough time in the first two phases, the next two phases will take much more time and the pyramid will become an onion. The consequences are: the effort increases, deadlines cannot be met and resources are not used efficiently.

the project onion
the project onion

How can you avoid the onion?

Roughly speaking, three steps are important.

1. Think about your goals and define them (see Defining Goals).

2. Create an appropriate plan for your task.

3. Stick to your plan but correct it if necessary (more about this in another article).

When I started as a project manager, I put a lot of time and effort into planning. In principle, this is a good approach. However, there is a reasonable level of planning, an optimum, if you will. The picture above shows that if too much time is spent on defining goals and planning, then the slim pyramid becomes a coarse block. This is another thing to avoid.

Another reason why a detailed planning at the beginning of a project can be disadvantageous is the uncertainty. On the one hand, the uncertainty of what the goal is exactly, e.g. which functionality is really necessary. On the other hand, the uncertainty in the estimation of effort and duration. To avoid these uncertainties there are agile methods, which will follow in a later article. The consequence of an early detailed planning is that the plan has to be adjusted very often, which is not very efficient.  Therefore, it is important to note that a detailed planning in this step is not recommended.

Create an appropriate plan

To explain the term “appropriate” it is important to first ask yourself what the goals of planning are. As stated, you want to be efficient and effective with your resources. That is, neither to work on tasks that are not necessarily needed, nor to invest in tasks more resources as needed to fulfil the goal. So appropriate planning is one from which you can derive the information of when to work on what topic and what is the desired outcome of your work. I am intentionally avoiding the time aspect of a task at this point i.e. effort. There will be an article about this later. At this point it is sufficient to think about necessary steps and results.

Planning step by step

  1. Start from your defined goal and think about which intermediate results you have to achieve in order to fulfil your goal. You can think of it like a recipe. To make a pizza you need a dough, sauce and toppings. Creating each part is an intermediate goal. Again, take each intermediate goal and break it down into more steps. This way, step by step, you can break down your big goal into many small tasks.
  2. Put the tasks in a logical order, it doesn’t make sense to bake the pizza before you prepare the toppings (more on this in a later article).
  3. Check whether you fully understand the task. For example, you can try to estimate the effort. The point is not to get an exact number, but to see if you have already broken down the task to a point where you can understand it completely. If you know what you need to do for the task, you can estimate how long it will take. If the task is still too complex so you can’ t estimate the effort, then break the task further down. Use the effort estimation as an indicator whether you need more subtasks or not.
  4. Think about whether you want to solve all the tasks yourself or if you can outsource or buy a solution. Think about how you can use your existing resources effectively and efficiently.

Note on point three, that there are different approaches to effort planning, which will be explained in a later article. Therefore, in this third step, try to focus only on whether you could fully understand the task or not. Keep the goal of your planning in mind. It is about developing and understanding the necessary steps you need, to reach your goal.

A practical case study

In the following, I would like to explain the theory to you using our example. In the last article, Mia has already defined her goal and now wants to start on planning her video chat tool. With her goal definition in mind, she starts to think about intermediate goals. One intermediate goal is, for example, the creation of the infrastructure i.e. setting up servers, communication between clients and so on. A second intermediate goal is the application itself, which consists of a user interface and background services. Next, the definition and writing of software tests is needed. And, even if she doesn’t want to do it herself, creating a marketing strategy is another intermediate goal. In this area she can at least already enter the work package “find a partner”. In all other areas, she now begins to break down the intermediate goals even further.

Mia wants to build the user interface as a single page application (SPA). The services should run in a container. For the creation of her code, she needs a code management. For the containers she needs a CI pipeline, and she has to take care of the container hosting. So, she already thought about a few rough working areas for her infrastructure topic. For now, this is sufficient for Mia to understand what she needs to do in which area. However, she breaks down her intermediate goals one or two more times.

Regarding the intermediate goal “Define tests” for example, she considers the tests for the user interface, the background services and the infrastructure to be necessary. She briefly estimates the number of tests in each area and leaves it at that.

Her next step is to plan in detail for the user interface and background services. Mia wants to try a method she knows from her work: “Eventstorming”. More about this in a later article.

She thinks through her intermediate goals and tasks and can already imagine well the work she has to do in each field of work. Now it’s easy for her to put the work packages in a logical order and also estimate the effort required. But before she gets on with that, she first wants to look for a partner for marketing. More about that in the next article.

Welcome to our first theme post. With these posts we want to share our knowledge that we have collected since the foundation of WeValCo and also during our work prior to that. On the one hand to create a broader understanding of the topic’s collaboration, project management, process management and self-organization and on the other hand (if you want) to discuss it with you (e.g. on Twitter or LinkedIn).

In this blog post I want to tell you something about goals. Goals are all around us. New Year’s has just been, and many people set goals for the coming year. But why is it important to have goals and how can a proper understanding of goals help you get them accomplished? More on that in this article.

Why are goals important?

Generally, goals allow us to focus our resources on a chosen topic and on a result to be achieved. By doing so, if we follow that goal, we will use fewer resources in other areas. By resources I mean, for example, time, attention, money, etc., generally things that are necessary to achieve a goal. So, it’s about using resources efficiently and effectively.

Isn’t efficient and effective the same thing?

No, efficiency means that we achieve our goal with the least possible use of resources and effective means that the goal is achieved as we thought it would be. In other words, efficiency means to do the necessary steps correctly (e.g. without mistakes) and effectiveness means to do the steps that are necessary.

How do you find the necessary steps?

First, you need to have a clear idea of what your goal is and what it is not. It is best to write down all your ideas and make a list of things that are not included. Be specific and concrete e.g. “I want to run a marathon, but triathlon doesn’t interest me”. Choose only ideas that you can influence, that you think are realistic, and that you can determine whether you have achieved them or not. At the end, set yourself a time frame by which you want to have reached your goal. Wanting to run the marathon tomorrow when you just started training today is not very realistic. To make sure you do not forget anything, the acronym “SMART” can help you. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Actively Influenceable, Realistic and Timed. Do you have everything together? Then try to formulate your goal in one sentence that contains all components.

All your future steps towards your goal can now be reflected in this sentence to find out whether they are goal-oriented, i.e. whether they bring you closer to your goal or not.

What we noticed in our planning at WeValCo is that we liked to write down big goals. Sure, we need a vision of where we want to go, but it’s also very important to define smaller intermediate goals. These are easier to reach and thus it is easier to know if you are still within your time and resource plan and especially you will stay motivated.

In the following I would like to give you an example of the theory.

Let’s assume someone wants to implement an IT project. Let’s call her Mia. She thinks that video chats are very good to improve communication within project teams, unfortunately all variants cost money and she wants to create a free variant that everyone can host themselves.

Mia works in the IT department of a large company and has about 10 hours a week to work on the “free video chat” project. She has many ideas about what she would like to implement and writes down all these ideas. The list becomes very long, and she thinks about which of the ideas will bring a real benefit in the first step. She tries to specify her goal. “I want a video chat in which I can communicate with people I know. Therefore, it is helpful, but not necessary, that I have a friends list. In the first step, it is enough to distribute chat invitations via mail.  The whole thing should simply run in the web browser. As web browser I focus on Chrome. I do not want to support an installation version. On the smartphone it does not need its own interface ….”. Mia gets even more specific and writes down all the things she wants to implement and which ones not. She also marks the things that are necessary and bring a direct benefit and those that are nice to have and she wants to implement later.

Now Mia is thinking about how to measure whether she is done or not, because software is never done, is it? She decides to define a series of software tests that must be successfully passed in order to complete.

Since she has a lot of experience in software development, she can actively influence the goal. Only the area of marketing is unfamiliar to her and she needs support there. She notes that she will not take up marketing as her own goal but will actively ask for support from her friends.

Next, she considers when she would like to be done. Next winter would be great, so that gives her about a year now. She reviews her list of things she wants to implement and considers what she can accomplish with 10 hours a week. The best way to do this is to roughly estimate how much work each step will take and add it up. A few topics that are not necessarily have to be crossed off the list, but in total she is satisfied. So, her goal seems realistic and she is looking forward to finally getting started.

Next, Mia wants to set up a work schedule and talk to a friend about marketing. More about that in the next article, creating a rough plan.