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Collaborative Planning – 7 Steps to Creating a Project Plan with your Team

If you’re a project manager you know first-hand that the success of your project is heavily dependent on how well you plan and initiate your project. “Failing to plan is planning to fail” as time management author Alan Lakein said. But the purpose of planning isn’t to create a detailed map that can’t be changed. The purpose is to think through all the project’s critical elements before the team makes irreversible commitments and takes irrevocable actions. All plans must be dynamic enough to reflect the reality that surrounds the project.

Traditionally it has been the project manager’s responsibility to plan the project – and for the most part that is still the case. But in recent years there has been an increased recognition of the importance of collaborative planning. The project manager is no longer expected to do it all in isolation. In fact there is a growing pressure from the team to be involved – and with good reason. Not only will the quality of the plan improve when the team is involved. It will also increase commitment and promote a shared sense of ownership, which are significant bonuses.

Let’s look at six steps you can take to produce a collaborative plan with your team.

1. Define the project

The first step in planning your project is to define it. A well-defined project is one where the team has a common understanding of what it is meant to deliver, by when and how it will go about delivering it.

How to approach it:

Arrange a workshop with the project team and the project’s sponsor to discuss and agree what the purpose of the project is, what the specific outputs are, which benefits they will lead to and what you will not deliver. It’s imperative that everyone understands what success looks like and what needs to happen for the project to be deemed successful after its delivery. You also need a common understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the project as well as the major risks and dependencies. As the project manager you are ideally place to facilitate this discussion, but you can also get someone from another team to do it.

2. Brainstorm everything that needs to get done

3998118477_f25d970e49_bOnce you understand what the project is meant to achieve, the second step is to brainstorm everything that needs to get done, which is a great way to get people engaged. This step can either be carried out immediately after the definition workshop or in a separate meeting.

How to approach it:

To do the brainstorming well, bring a stack of post-it-notes and ask people to write down everything that needs to get done for the project. They should capture one item (or task) per post-it note. Don’t criticize or restrict people at this stage. Just let them write down whatever comes to mind. The only guideline is to capture deliverables as opposed to activities. For instance “new logo created” instead of “create new logo”. You want to capture the end state – or deliverable – of an activity. In that way you encourage the team to see the project from the customer’s point of view.

5330405591_d830f9a4af_b3. Categorise tasks into logical groups

When the brainstorming is done, the next step is to remove duplicates and to group the tasks into categories.

How to approach it:

As the facilitator, read out all the brainstormed tasks and discuss with the team if each item is a valid task that needs to get done and if it overlaps with any other task. Remove duplicates and come to an agreement about which major and minor tasks you believe the project consists of. As you talk through each item you will naturally start to group them into different sets of categories. You may for instance end up with a number of post-it-notes that relate to “website re-designed” and another category called “PR & marketing completed”. At the end you and your team will have consolidated all your tasks and also have an idea of which category each task belongs to.

6079728055_e6deee4d5d_b4. Create a product breakdown structure

The fourth step is to create a Product Breakdown Structure (PBS), which is similar to an organizational chart that flows from top to bottom. At the top you have the project’s end product (or output) and at the levels below you break the product down into its constituent parts. The purpose is to show a complete overview of everything the project needs to deliver in a logical breakdown structure. The PBS should contain all the tasks and categories that you identified in the previous step.

How to approach it:

  1. At the top of the hierarchy create a new post-it-note which represents the project’s final product, for instance “website rebranding project”.
  2. At the next level down put the 3-7 categories of your project; e.g. “website re-designed”, “PR & marketing completed”, “users trained” etc.
  3. At the third level put your remaining post-it-notes, i.e. the tasks that relate to each of the categories. If you find that something is missing or doesn’t add up, revise your tasks and add a new post-it-note until your breakdown is complete. Remember that this should be an interactive exercise that engages the entire team.

5. Create a product flow diagram

The fifth step is to turn the product breakdown structure into a product flow diagram. A product flow diagram flows from left to right with the final product (e.g. “website rebranding project”) on the far right-hand side. It depicts the dependencies between each individual task and therefore gives you a view of the sequence in which the different tasks, or products, can be completed.

How to approach it:

Transfer the post-it-notes from step four into the product flow diagram based on dependencies. Tasks that can be completed relatively early are placed towards the left and items that can be completed later are on the right. The 2nd line categories in the product breakdown structure become milestones in the product flow diagram whereas the 3rd level is tasks or minor milestones.


3079598244_37ae362fc2_b6. Compile the milestone plan

You now have a product flow diagram that shows you when each task and milestone can be completed in relation to one another. All you need to do with your team to create a viable plan is to put a timeline across the top of your chart and assign a date to each item. This may be easier said than done, but remember that you’re doing it in collaboration with the team.

How to approach it:

Choose your timeline and add it to the top of the chart, for instance with weeks, months or years. Then, arrange your major and minor milestones into phases with clearly defined dates in correct relation to the timeline – preferably on one page. Initially you may come up with ideal dates that later need to be verified based on a more refined set of estimates. Early on in the planning process it’s ok to make assumptions and use approximate durations, as you might not have all the detailed information yet. The process of creating this milestone plan will jump-start more in-depth planning conversations and activities.

7. Assign responsibilities

The last step of the planning process is to assign clear responsibilities to each major and minor milestone on the chart.

How to approach it:

List all the milestones along the left hand side of a flipchart. Across the top of the flipchart you write the initials of each team member. Discuss each milestone in turn and decide which team member is responsible for making the milestone happen and indicate this on the flipchart with an “R” – for Responsible. Note that for each milestone there can only be one responsible person. Also discuss which team members will support them in doing so and indicate that with an “S” against the relevant people on the chart.

Why Choose a Collaborative Approach?

There are several points to carrying out this collaborative planning exercise. The first one is that although you end up with a high-level milestone plan, it will help you communicate in simple terms with your team and your stakeholders. A one-page milestone plan may be all that your stakeholders need – as long as it clearly demonstrates which milestones and tasks you plan to complete when, who is responsible and how you are doing compared to that target.

Secondly the above steps lend themselves to an interactive format where you make use of post-it-notes and whiteboards to map out the tasks and milestone of your project in collaboration with the team. Planning collaboratively becomes a motivational and engagement exercise, as much as a planning exercise, which helps you to unite the team around a common goal.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is that as the project manager you don’t have to know it all and do it all by yourself. The more you involve the team in the planning stages, the more engaged people will be, and the more robust the project’s results.




photo credit: Project: Turkey


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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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