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How to plan and execute a software project (project delivery plan)

Every good software project needs a well-defined purpose, objectives, and a plan for how these will be achieved. As the saying goes;

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

This is why the first and arguably most crucial stage in a project’s life-cycle is its project plan. This plan will give stakeholders, investors, and team members a fundamental idea of a project’s scope, project goals, risks and threats to overcome, and a scheduling baseline.

Below we will cover why project planning is such a vital part of any successful software project, what a good planning process should look like, and the risks associated with poor project planning.


{The importance of having a project plan}

Often when working on a software project, there can be a tendency for developers to delve straight into the activities and development stage of the project. However, it is when this happens that scope-creep can become an issue and you significantly increase the chances of code refactoring (rewriting due to misunderstood product vision and requirements).

This is when a project naturally drifts outside of its intended scope, mainly due to a lack of clear understanding, communication or reiteration of the projects main goal or propose. Scope-creep can lead to severe problems with the delivery or completion of a project. It is often not identified until the project is well underway – leading to significant setbacks and delay.

A good project plan should explain everything stakeholders and team members will need to know about a project, including scheduling, budgets and deliverables. This way, no assumptions are made (assumption being the Mother of all mistakes). Everyone involved in the project understands both their role and how this contributes to larger management goals.

{The process of planning and delivering a project}

Why

When project planning, the first part of the process involves simply defining the ‘Why‘. This should inform stakeholders, managers and every other team member with a general overview of the reason behind the project’s existence.

This may sound easy but can prove harder than first thought. After all, how can all team members work towards a common goal if they are unsure about the purpose of why a project exists in the first place? When defining the ‘why’ within a project plan, you should also outline any foreseeable project constraints and detail the role stakeholders will play.

What

The ‘what‘ stage of a project plan exists to define the project’s deliverables and set the defined project scope. You should also set your project milestones within this section of your project plan. These will hopefully help keep every all activity within the defined scope and schedule.

Milestones also act as set marker-points within the projects life-cycle. Everyone can assess a project’s development and ensure all completed activities contribute to their larger objectives and goals. 

How

Once the ‘why‘ and the ‘what‘ is defined, your project plan should highlight ‘how‘ you intend to achieve the project deliverables. A good approach is to break down the project schedule into defined phases, sub-projects, project deliverables and risk-testing.

This should then leave you with a detailed plan of how all individual steps in the project – from planning to final deliverables – will unfold in an organised and measured way. Creating a plan helps the project management team avoid any unforeseen obstacles or delays and help secure the project schedule and budget.

Do It

When you actualise your project plan, you must remember to keep all stakeholders and investors informed and updated as things progress. Keeping your stakeholders informed throughout the development of a project helps manage their expectations. Some of the worst project holdups and delays happen due to a lack of communication or involvement with the stakeholders.

To avoid, it is recommended that you place regular meetings and reviews within the project schedule – so that all activities can be signed-off on, and you can manage the deliverable expectations.

Did It

It may help if you remember that your project plan isn’t etched in stone. As a project develops and unravels, certain aspects of the delivery plan – particularly the project schedule – are bound to move outwith the initially set plans. This is perfectly natural and to be expected. Other parts of the project plan – such as the budget – should not change at any point within the project’s life-cycle (unless the system requirements significantly change).

Project plans are made to be referred back to and amended or changed wherever necessary. Although the best project plans remain unaltered throughout the entire project, this rarely happens in reality, because business objectives change frequently.

Project plans exist as a guide to help steer the development of a project in the right direction by ensuring all activities are relevant, necessary and contributing towards the final delivery or project goals. Delivery plans should never be constrictive to a project’s development. Suppose a project manager finds that a delivery plan is standing in the way of a project’s success. It is their responsibility to change it appropriately and inform the team of these changes.

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{How to devise a project management plan}

When writing a project management plan, some critical steps in the process can help minimise the risks and ensure that all tasks and activities align with the organisation’s aims and objectives.

Identify The Project

The initial starting point for any project management plan is identifying the reason for the project. These should already be defined within a ‘business case’ document. This should detail why a project should exist, the benefits that it will yield, and the return that investors or stakeholders should expect.

If your project exists to combat a specific challenge or problem, you should clearly explain it consistently within the business case document.

Identify goals and objectives

There is often confusion about the differences between goals and objectives when project planning. Goals are broad-stroke explanations of what the project aims to achieve, whereas objectives are more refined, task-based duties that will help achieve these aims.

You should have already sighed the primary goals and objectives for your project within the business case. However, this section of the management plan allows you to refine and explain these in great detail.

Once you have fine-tuned and honed in on both the goals and objectives of a project, management should then collate them within a ‘project charter’, which can be referred back to throughout the project’s life-cycle.

Eliminate any issues or risks

All projects will have some degree of risk associate with them.

As you can imagine, these vary depending on the business field the project operates within or exists. That said, certain risks can potentially impact any project.

These include:

• Scope risks
• Time-schedule risks
• Technical risks

A project manager can use several project management tools and software programs to help plan tasks, schedules and allocating resources where they are most needed.

Mark out tasks

When marking out the tasks and activities needed to complete a project, management must first work out the final deliverables and work backwards.

Working in this way lets the project manager decide what tasks to allocate to each team member and understand all the factors and people or resources a project will need for completion.

Choose your team

Even if your project plan outline feels complete, it is never so until you put together a team who possess the skills and understanding required to actualise your plans. Management should allocate these tasks depending on each team member’s skill set, which requires them to have a clear understanding of the role they will play in the project and the steps needed to do so.

When assigning or marking out tasks for each team member, management should provide all the resources and material they will need – and make sure all communication lines are clear and understood.

Create a comprehensive timeline

The timeline of a project is what will keep everything together. It keeps all activities within the defined project schedule and informs every stakeholder of what they can expect and when. 

To create a comprehensive timeline, project managers should start at the delivery date and organise all the tasks required to get there on an orderly and step-by-step basis.

Milestones can be a great way of marking the beginning and end of each phase in a project.


{How to perfect the project planning process}

The project planning process is something that often takes considerable time and effort. That said, the more time, effort and detail that goes into the planning process, the less likely it is that a project will drift out of its established scope, budget or schedule.


Arrange regular meetings with each team member

Meetings and one-to-ones with every team member is an integral part of the planning process. One of the largest contributors to scope-creep comes from team members feeling their views and opinions fall on deaf ears. This can lead to a feeling of despondence, which ultimately leads to a loss in productivity.

Arranging regular meetings with all team members also helps a project manager monitor each activity being done and keep everyone aligned and motivated towards the same outcome.

Be prepared for the plan to change

As mentioned previously, project plans are always subject to change as things develop. This is a natural part of the process and should not be seen as a shortfall in your project planning abilities. If it becomes clear that a project plan needs to be changed – change it.

Address any issues immediately

The role that a project manager plays in any project is that of a guide. Therefore, if any issues with tasks or deliverables are noticed, the project manager must address these as quickly as possible.

The longer you wait or refrain from doing so, the more likely you’ll encounter problems later on.

Provide helpful and directive project management

Effective project management requires communication with various people. Some project management tips for doing so rationally and directly include:

• Workshops
• Surveys
• One-to-one meetings

As a project manager, your job is to provide helpful and actionable advice and direction, rather than simply telling people they are wrong.

Celebrate milestones and results

Managers should set milestones along each stage of a projects life-cycle. These should be used marker-points to assess each project phase’s results and how it aligns with the project schedule. Milestones are set-dates in the timeline of a project which measures the project status and activity. They let management display to all team members the progress made on a project so far, and all of the hard work put into each of the completed project steps.

Rather than viewing milestones as a ‘where are we going?‘ project management teams should use them to convey ‘where have we been so far?‘. This can increase team productivity and activity as everyone can see how each completed task helps move the project forwards towards the final delivery.


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{What can go wrong with a project plan?}

Unfeasible project schedule

One of the most common problems that a project plan can have is an unfeasible project schedule. This usually happens when a stakeholder or investor has an unrealistic expectation of when a project will be finalised, leading them to expect results before they are deliverable.

The best way to avoid any unrealistic schedules is to adopt a bottom-up approach to scheduling. You start with the deliverable and work backwards through each stage in the development process.

Another option is to enlist an expert project management institute, which can help spread the workload evenly and work out a realist set of expectations and goals.

Rejection by project stakeholders

Every project stakeholder should take part in discussions which concern project delivery. Suppose they are not included or involved in a crucial decision and only become aware of it after the project has progressed. In that case, they can reject it – causing significant backtracking and disruptions.

To ensure each deliverable meets the project schedule, you should always involve every stakeholder in the decision-making process. No matter how trivial or minor a decision may seem, failing to keep stakeholders in the loop can lead to even the most robust projects downfall. 

Immature project deliverables

Another common problem that can affect project delivery is immature deliverables. When the deliverable of a project (end goods or products) are not well-formed or fully actualised, this is a common problem in software development projects where there is an increased focus on the ‘how‘ of a project rather than the ‘what‘.


{Frequently Asked Questions}

Management can break down the process of writing a delivery plan into eight stages. Each of these stages involves lengthy team-discussions and development and varies depending on the specifics of the project. However, here is a rough outline that most business can follow:

■ Detail the project to stakeholders, investors and team members.
■ List the goals and objectives of the project.
■ Define the projects parameters (or scope).
■ Write a detailed project schedule.
■ Identify the required resources, roles and responsibilities.
■ Establish a process for monitoring progress and set milestones.
■ Make plans for plans changing.

Project management is critical to any project’s success, as it helps guide and manage all of the individual parts of a project that combine to make a whole.

Without adequate management, projects run a severe risk of going over budget or schedule or slope-creep, causing the project’s parameters to shift unintentionally.

Project planning software is worth investing in, as it relieves the pressure of organising multiple different teams yourself. Having milestones and other objectives somewhere accessible to all team members can also increase productivity and motivation.

Planning software can also let stakeholders observe a project’s progress without being involved in the daily operational aspects

The idea of a project delivery and execution plan is to set out who does what and when clearly. Therefore it should include details such as:

■ A definition of the project
■ A detailed cost plan
■ The various roles and responsibilities of team members
■ Risk assessments

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