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Chopping up your project planning

The balance between insight and workability.

Everyone plans projects in their own way. The question is, should you plan your project in one big block or opt for well-organized, detailed smaller components? Each method of breaking down a project has its advantages and disadvantages. How do you know which method best suits your organization? That’s the question we’re going to answer in this blog post.

First, we’ll take a look at an example scenario. Then we’ll look at the reasons why you should break down your projects. And finally, we’ll look at how to achieve that. So let’s begin.


An example

For our example, we’ll use an installation company. In this scenario, one of their clients has built an office block. Our fitter has been hired to install all the electrical and network cabling in the building. In order to manage the various phases of the job efficiently, the planner has divided the project into almost 100 tasks. This lets him see in detail who is working on what, and the progress of each task.

However, just as the planner is about to complete his planning for the project, he receives a call from the client. Some additional requirements and changes have to be added to the planning. One of the suppliers has taken longer than expected to complete his job. Because of this, one wing of the building has to be closed off for a longer period of time than was originally envisaged. This means that the electrical installation will have to be delayed. The planner now needs to reschedule nearly 100 tasks and check the availability of the different fitters once again.

Thanks to his detailed planning, the fitters know exactly what work they need to do when they arrive on site. However, when the installer needs to report on the progress and actual hours spent on the job, he has to search through an almost endless list of job codes. There are so many job codes that the installer has to spent a great deal of time on admin and often uses the wrong code.

This method of planning gives the planner the necessary details to effectively monitor the budgeted hours. He or she is in complete control of the project, which means that corrective action can be taken in time when it looks like more hours will be needed than have been budgeted for. These details also give the planner the opportunity to rethink his budget and to set it up better the next time round.

However, when making the necessary changes, the planner has to spend a lot of time updating his detailed planning schedule. After all, he has to check the feasibility of all of the activities yet again. Something else to factor in is that the fitters have to spend a great deal of time reporting their progress and actual hours spent on each job. Does all this effort outweigh the benefits of a detailed plan?


3 reasons to fine-tune your project

There are 3 factors to consider when deciding the level of detail needed when planning a project:

1. Budget-monitoring of the hours

One of the reasons for breaking down your project into individual tasks is to get a better overall grip on things. For example, this allows you to estimate the hours needed per task. During the project, the actual hours can be recorded for each job. If more hours are used than were originally budgeted for, the planner is still able to effectively manage this as the project progresses.

If the planner does not split the project, the difference between the budgeted and actual hours will only be known after the project has been completed. It will then be too late for the planner to respond in time to the extra hours, or to learn from his mistakes. If the project is not broken down, the planner won’t know where the extra hours have been spent on the project.

2. Itemized invoicing

Another reason for breaking down projects into manageable activities is that various jobs require itemized invoices. How detailed they are, depends on the client’s requirements.

It often happens that the hours worked on a project are invoiced based on time material. The client may then want to know how these hours were spent. However, if a fixed price has been agreed, it usually makes no difference to the client.

3. Communicating tasks

The final reason for breaking down a project is to ensure that employees are clear in terms of what needs to be done based on the name of the task. This streamlines the communication process.

It also gives employees a clear overview into the structure and dependencies of the various tasks. Employees know which co-workers and tasks they depend on. This promotes mutual communication and coordination.


But how can this be done?

How do you split a project? There are 3 possible ways. Let’s look at them from the fine-tuned to the rough perspective.

A. By task

When splitting a project by task, various titles will represent the tasks needed for the work to be carried out, such as briefing, designing, developing, testing, implementing, support and so on. This method of breaking down a project is in line with point 3 above: i.e. the breakdown of projects in order to communicate the tasks.

This method lets you kill two birds with one stone. You’re assigning employees and, at the same time, you’re telling them what they need to do. That saves time and effort. This method works especially well if your planner needs an in-depth insight into the actual hours spent and your employees need a clear understanding of what tasks they need to carry out in terms of the projects.

B. By monitoring interim results

If you split projects using this method, the project components will reflect the title of interim project objectives, for example, “workplace 7” in a project could refer to building a floor filled with new flexible workstations. This also lets you keep a close eye on any discrepancies between budgeted and actual hours, because you can analyze these differences on the level of the interim results.

This method works particularly well when employees know what tasks have to be carried out in order to achieve an interim result. They do not need detailed instructions, at least, not from the planning perspective.

C. By function

When breaking a project down into functions, the project components are given the name of the required function, such as project manager, front-end designer or back-end developer. This method of subdivision makes it easy for the planner to link the right employee to the required function. The planning is done quite roughly and this saves the planner time.

This method works especially well when your organization works with standard projects and everyone knows how to implement them. It provides minimal control over discrepancies between budgeted and actual hours, but you can still analyze these for each function.


Final considerations

When it comes to project planning, there is no perfect golden rule. Just how far your projects should be broken down into smaller components will depend on a number of factors. Budget-monitoring, itemized invoicing, and communicating effectively are all factors that affect the level of detail required.

The planning of the work, recording progress, and actual hours spent need not always have to be done at the same detailed level. You can also consider planning at the function level, for example, but have the actual spent hours and progress recorded at the task level. This will at least make the planning a little easier. Provided you have a team of employees who know exactly what they’re doing.

Another option is to use a blend of planning methods. For example, some parts of the project could be planned based on function, such as project management, while other areas could be planned in detail at the task level.

It is really an ongoing process of trial and error in order to find a balance that suits your organization best. The goal is to strike the right balance between having a good overview on the one hand, whilst keeping the implementation of the project workable. The key question will always be: “Do the advantages of detailed planning outweigh the effort required?”


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