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3 Ways to Develop Actionable Steps for Project Planning

3 Ways to Develop Actionable Steps for Project Planning

Identifying and collecting actionable steps in a project plan can be daunting to some people at first. It takes some experience in both being involved in the execution of projects as well having some experience in planning in order to get good at it.

The term 'Work Breakdown Structure' is commonly used to describe a hierarchy of groupings of individual actionable steps that comprise the entire project.  There are several options for developing a Work Breakdown Structure.

Selection of the option to be used in any specific project should be based on the project team's preferences and on the ease of use for that particular team.

A Work Breakdown Structure is a backbone for the project that identifies all the tasks.  Each task can be assessed for cost, risk, duration, quality, resource needs, procurement requirements, then rolled up into a comprehensive project plan. A Work Breakdown Structure is an absolutely necessary component of any project plan. Here are three different approaches for developing a Work Breakdown Structure.

A Hierarchy of Sticky Notes

One approach that is commonly used by those learning about project management is a system that first involves the use of sticky notes. Sticky notes are good because they can be easily moved into more logical groupings as the planning work progresses.

The project team works through a process of identifying the steps they see necessary to complete the project. Each step is written on a sticky note and stuck on a whiteboard or similar surface.

When the ideas are exhausted, the team then works through a process of logically grouping (i.e. relocating) each sticky note 'step' into a hierarchical layout.

As the layout develops, new steps may be identified or steps may be combined. Also, as the layout gets refined, each group can be relocated into a logical sequence from left to right.

Ultimately, the project team develops a comprehensive hierarchical display of the logical sequence and steps involved in completing the project. This can then be put into a hand drawn or computerized hierarchy for further use in the project planning process.

The following sketch provides a very simple demonstration of the use of a sticky note system for developing a Work Breakdown Structure for baking a cake. Once there is agreement on the location of all the tasks and groupings, this can be re-written in the form of a hierarchical structure map or in a numbered list, which is described below.

Sticky Notes

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping is a system for capturing ideas that was developed by Tony Buzan.  As a visually-oriented person, I find this particularly useful for many purposes from project planning to recording notes in a lecture. A circle or oval is first drawn in the centre of a page or whiteboard with the main objective written inside. For our simple example, it's 'Bake a Cake'.

The steps of buying ingredients, measure ingredients, mix ingredients, bake, and frost are all directly linked to the main objective.  Each of these steps, however, may have sub-steps (such as Buy Dry Goods, Buy Fresh Ingredients) which are linked to each of the steps.  The branches can continue until you have reached individual actionable steps.

Mind Map

A Numbered List

Another approach to developing a Work Breakdown Structure is by using a numbered list.  Indenting with sub-levels allows for tasks to be nested under group headings.  This is the approach used in Microsoft Project and other project applications and so learning this approach is important if you're going to involve the use of such software in planning your projects.

This approach is also easily undertaken using common word processing software packages. This is particularly useful when projected on a meeting room wall in front of the project team while the list is being developed.

Although I use all three of these approaches in my work, I find the numbered list the easiest to incorporate into written documents. I suggest that you eventually take the Hierarchy or Mind Mapping you have created and convert it to a Numbered List as you proceed with your project planning efforts.

Here is the 'Bake a Cake' project shown in a numbered list form:

  1. Bake Cake
    1. Buy Ingredients
      1. Buy Dry Goods (Flour, Salt, Sugar)
      2. Buy Fresh Ingredients (Eggs, Milk, Butter, Frosting)
    2. Measure Ingredients
    3. Mix Ingredients
    4. Bake
      1. Pre-Heat Oven
      2. Bake In Oven
      3. Cool On Rack
    5. Frost

The important thing about the process of identifying actionable steps is that you don't miss any. Project Planning tends to be a very iterative process and as schedules, cost estimates, risk management plans, and so forth are developed, it is very likely that the Work Breakdown Structure will need to be repeatedly refined and adjusted.

Ultimately, all project plan components will come together into one final Project Plan that has considered and incorporated all actionable steps necessary to get the project done.

These are three approaches I suggest you try.  If you are using other techniques for identifying and laying-out actionable steps, I'd like to hear about them.

About Jim Stokes

Jim Stokes provides project management and land acquisition services at Forestview Project Planning Services in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Jim has written a series of papers about The Importance of Project Planning available at Forestview PPS. For further information you can contact Jim directly at.

Posted in: Project Management

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