In business, as with most things in life, change is constant. When an organization needs to make an important change, like upgrading a computer network or expanding to a new location, it's usually best to view it as a project. Size, of course, isn't what defines a project, but what does define a project is a plan.

A project can be defined as any planned undertaking with a set of related tasks designed to reach a defined objective that has both a beginning and an end. Without a plan, a project becomes just an assortment of tasks. For most organizations, the question isn't whether or not there is a plan, but how well the plan has been set out and how well it is followed.

An Overview of What Makes a Project

A project should have seven characteristics:

1. Objective: A project should have a primary objective (i.e. the end result) with a specified budget, schedule and requirements. A project may be broken down into additional objectives leading toward the primary objective.

2. Unique: A project is always different compared to other projects. Making 1,000 of the same model car on an assembly line wouldn't qualify as 1,000 projects. But painting three houses would be three different projects because the requirements wouldn't be exactly the same.

3. Time-Frame: Projects are started and finished within specified times, ending with the completion of the project's objective. The project team is either disbanded or begins a new project.

4. Multifaceted: Projects involve people from different parts of the organization. In a small business, it may require different skills from a small number of people as well as specialists brought in from outside of the company.

5. Varied Life Cycle: A project goes through different stages, requiring new resources, tasks or people along the way.

6. New Frontiers: Projects always present a company with a requirement for new processes or innovation. Often, new technologies or new ways of doing business are required.

7. Risk: With uncertainty comes risk. Failure to complete a project on time or on budget usually jeopardizes a company's business goals.

The Importance of Planning a Project 

A project usually consists of four phases: initiation, planning, execution and closing. Planning is unique, however, in that it is usually a part of the other three phases.

Initiation: Initiating a project involves gathering your project team together and approaching the client — either a paying customer or an in-house client in your organization. At this point, you should be drawing up an initiation plan that begins defining the project objectives and scope and establishing procedures, roles and communication protocols. The initiation plan should also begin working out a rough estimate of the cost, how the project will be funded and who will get the bill.

During the execution and closing of the project, your project plan should serve as your blueprint, determining whether or not the project tasks and deliverables are on schedule. More often than not, you should expect that your plan will require revisions as you move along. While closing the project, the project plan should serve as a baseline to compare the promised deliverables to what was actually accomplished.

The Project Planning Phase

The project planning phase is the second of a project's four phases. Once the project has been initiated, this is when planning should begin in earnest, before a single task has been executed. There are 10 aspects to a good project plan.

1. Describe the project. Specifically, the project description should detail the problem the project is intended to solve or, alternatively, the opportunity it will capitalize on. The description should also state what the main objective is, what needs to be accomplished, how accomplishments will be measured and what will signify the end of the project.

2. Break down the project into specific tasks. Ensure there is a natural progression from each task to the next. If some tasks need to be done at the same time, specify what they are. This is where a flowchart becomes invaluable.

3. Estimate the resources required for the project. If needed, create a resource plan to ensure the right resources are gathered effectively.

4. Develop the project schedule. Give each task a time estimate, as well as a start and end date.

5. Develop a communication plan. Specify when and how communication should flow between team members, management, as well as other stakeholders like the client.

6. Specify standards and procedures. How are project deliverables to be produced and tested by the project team?

7. Identify and assess risks. Document any potential risks in the project and what their consequences will be.

8. Draft a budget. Summarize the expenses you anticipate for the project, compared to revenue.

9. Write a Statement of Work (SoW). This document lists the work to be done, deliverables and the expected outcome once the project is finished.

10. Summarize the project plan. This document includes the project tasks and resources required.

Benefits of Project Planning

It's unlikely you would attempt to build a house without a set of blueprints. Regardless of the size of the project, working from a plan will give you the same advantages, literally serving as the blueprint to your project. The depth and quality of your plan will be directly proportional to the results of your finished project. Project plans can help:

1. Visualize your goals and the path needed to take there. Gant charts, PERT charts and Critical Path Method (CPM) charts allow you to see your project requirements and timelines at a glance.

2. Improve communication. Because a description of communication protocols are a part of a project plan, your project team, stakeholders and decision-makers all know how and when they need to communicate with each other.

3. Decrease time and costs. In many ways, a project plan works like a dry run, with everyone in the team able to foresee problems before they happen. Carpenters often say, "Measure twice and cut once."

4. Improve your control of the project. When stakeholders agree on a project plan, they are less likely to try to change the course of a project once it has begun. When they do want to make changes, you can refer to the plan and show how the change will affect the schedule and costs.

5. Improve the allocation of resources. Because a project plan includes a schedule, you will know exactly when team members are required to do their work and when they will need tools and supplies to do it. Imagine, for example, renting a truck a week before your team needs it, or scheduling that truck a week late.

6. Keep you on course. Projects invariably get off track. People, for example, get sick or finish tasks earlier than anticipated. With a project schedule, it's much easier to make adjustments as you go along to ensure the project stays on course.

While there are always difficulties in project planning, these difficulties always take less time and cost less money than facing difficulties in the midst of a project. Keep in mind that no project is destined to be a success on its own. The better your plan is, the more likely it will finish on time and within your budget.