October 19, 2023

How to Act as a Successful PM Before Planning Process

We covered a good piece of the theory of the planning process. Most probably, you wonder how on earth should you do all that. In real life, there is always a mess. No one ever gives you enough time to work like a textbook describes. Moreover, nobody cares.

I want to tell you a story. It is about Corwin. He is an excellent project manager. And he has a sound approach to the project planning process. I saw him at work…

Where does the planning process begin?

Corwin has a routine. Every week or two, he goes out to collect intelligence. Usually, he goes to the director of his department, functional and technical managers, and the HR department. He knows when it is the best time to pay a visit without prior notice. He does it casually.

What intelligence is he after? The well-being of the company. Satisfaction of clients, customers, and sponsors on other projects. And whether there are any new contracts or clients in sight.

Corwin manages one or two projects. But he is always aware when a new one may be assigned to him. He is ready for it. And for sure, he is ready for any impact that new projects can impose to the ongoing ones.

As a professional manager, Corwin tries to stay away from any internal politics and intrigues. Nevertheless, he is completely aware of the current state of affairs of all major players. That is why he meets with functional and technical managers. Usually, they are the most active in politics.

So, he tries to address three issues at once. First, he probes to see the current attitude of key stakeholders in regard to the ongoing projects. Second, he casually overcommunicates the current status of the projects. And last but not least, he tries to find out their attitude towards possible new projects.

As much as Corwin doesn’t like all the fight for power, he understands its origins. He accepts it as an inevitable aspect of project management and matrix organization.

At last, he visits the HR department. Well, most of the time, he goes there for cookies. They always have some. Though, he wants to know whether the department is in regular mode. Or whether they are under heavy load in search of a bulk number of new resources. That is always a sign of incoming work.

You may not see it, but Corwin had already done a bulk work of Stakeholder Analysis. Before a new project has even appeared.

TAKEAWAY. If you do not meet with your management regularly and do not build the relationship. Go! Start doing it right now.


Not always project managers have the luxury of participating in pre-sales. However, Corwin never misses an opportunity to take part in the pre-sale process. First of all, he wants to know the problem a new project will try to solve.

Corwin also knows of a fundamental truth about customers. They do not know what the final result should look like. That is why he doesn’t miss the chance to influence customer’s mindset. The team will be solving his problem. Not just mindlessly doing the tasks. It will be a mutual collaboration.

Such an approach gives him expert authority. It builds constructive and professional relationships from the start.

Besides that, there is always a need to control sales managers. He should not over-promise too much.

TAKEAWAY. Participate in pre-sales whenever possible. Plant the seeds of your expert authority. 

Project Initiation

You may still wonder, when does the planning process actually begin? Fairly soon. But Corwin thinks that pre-planning is much more important. Ask him the same question. He will say that planning process starts with a Project Charter.

Even if the customer has already paid the money or signed a contract, Corwin insists on creating a Project Charter. In any form. Even if it is just an entry in a task tracker.

Therefore, he arranges a meeting or a call with a customer. The primary goal of this conversation is to understand the business case. In it’s all excruciating details. Why are we going to create a product or service? How does it help users? What problems does it solve for them? In most cases, that’s all.

Corwin doesn’t like initial “round table” meetings. When all possible experts and stakeholders gather in one place – it is a mess. Everyone will be dragging the conversation into their domain area. There will be too many unnecessary details.

Next, Corwin tries to identify a person or two who is an expert and can help to find solutions. Sometimes there are preassigned people. But that doesn’t mean they can help.

Yes, it is a matter of knowing people. Quite often, functional and technical managers do know who has the required experience. They know about many different projects, past and present.

So it is another meeting. Here, Corwin explains the business case for the project. The pre-sale information may be available for some time already. But he tries to transfer his knowledge obtained from the meeting with the customer. Then, he asks how we can produce that.

It depends on the expertise available in the organization. If the meeting generates a lot of ideas and solutions. That’s great. They carry on. If not, Corwin will start thinking about a separate project or an initial phase of the project to perform research. But it is another story. It is not about the project planning process.

By the end of the meeting, Corwin may already have a draft of the Project Charter. The most important is to understand the boundaries of the project scope, assumptions, and technological constraints.

Depending on the complexity of a project and how comfortable Corwin feels, he may discuss the Project Charter draft with his boss and some key stakeholders. Usually, subject matter experts. He does this to make a sanity check before sending the charter to the customer.

Whenever possible, Corwin tries to have another meeting. This time with the customer and all key stakeholders. He will present the draft of the Project Charter. His goal is to ensure that everyone understands the project at hand in the same way. If needed, the Project Charter can be corrected.

There is one important point that Corwin never misses. During this meeting, he talks through all the major deliverables that each stakeholder expects to get. That is to ensure all expectations are met. But also to ensure that all stakeholders know of requirements of each other. Some requirements may require too much effort or resources. Or it might be redundant.

In any case, it is an excellent time to align the vision and the scope of the project with all key stakeholders.

TAKEAWAY. Project Charter contains the general directions for your project. Create it in any suitable form. But do create it before starting any work.

Basement of the Planning Process

You see, only now it is possible actually to plan the project. So Corwin now understands the environment for the project. He knows approximately about other projects and their problems. In other words, Corwin knows how they can impact his projects. He knows about the capacity of the available resources. And he is aware of the attitude of major “politics” in the organization.

Then Corwin got the Project Charter. It includes high-level requirements and major deliverables. So he will not be drifting trying to guess what the client wants. He will work towards planning the delivery of the stated product.

What if he would skip all the previous actions? There are some stakeholders who have personal goals. And there is a client who has a vague idea of what he needs. Stakeholders start to suggest all a lot of different options. These are beautiful ideas and additions to the possible end product. However, most of them do not support the business needs of the project.

TAKEAWAY. Not all stakeholders pursue the same goals as the customer of a project. Do not assume that everyone acts in the best interests of the project.

It will do a lot of good in case the client has an unlimited budget or no deadlines. Though, usually, business doesn’t work this way.

Some projects do start without any clear requirements. And that is OK. Such projects require a research phase. During this period, you will usually collect the requirements and prepare the vision of the product or service to be created. Nevertheless, such research efforts should be controlled, fixed (both in time and money), and time-boxed if possible.

With this pack of knowledge, you will be able to start the planning process. Without it, you will be spending time, money, and resources, but you will not be moving toward the project’s goals. Simply because no one knows them.