Starting a new project can be an overwhelming process! From scheduling the right meetings to crafting the perfect roadmap, the decisions you make during these initial stages of the project play a huge role in its eventual success.
There's a lot to be done, but never fear! We've compiled our top 5 tips for successful project planning to help you ensure your next project starts off on the right foot.
1. Define roles and responsibilities
No matter how detailed your project plan may be, if you fail to clearly define individual roles and responsibilities at the outset of a project, you're destined for trouble. Tasks will be forgotten, role confusion will emerge, and finger pointing will begin.
In order to keep your project from falling into chaos, it’s crucial that your team has a shared understanding of individual roles and responsibilities, along with explicit documentation to support it. A RACI chart is an easy and effective solution for mapping these out. It’s a simple matrix that allows you to assign roles and responsibilities for each task, milestone, or decision on a project by breaking roles into 4 different categories:
Responsible: This team member does the work to complete the task. Each task needs at least one “Responsible” individual, though typically several people are jointly responsible.
Accountable: The individual deemed Accountable delegates the work and is responsible for reviewing and approving completed tasks. There should be only one “Accountable” individual.
Consulted: These are individuals who need to give input before a task can be approved. These individuals typically serve as advisers, or experts on the subject matter being dealt with.
Informed: These are individuals who need to be kept in the loop with updates on progress and decisions. They do not contribute directly to the task, nor are they formally consulted.
You can create your own RACI chart template in any spreadsheet software by doing the following:
Across the top row: Enter each team member's name
Down the left column: List all tasks, milestones, and decisions that need to be completed
Assign a responsibility level to each individual for each task
Ensure you have only one “Accountable” per task and that they have the authority to ensure the task is complete.
Focus on project tasks, milestones, and decisions - avoid general to-do’s such as meetings.
Avoid adding too many consultants to your tasks. Waiting for multiple approvals in order to sign off on your task will put a damper on your productivity.
Make sure to align the tasks in your RACI chart with your project plan to ensure there is no confusion about details.
2. Create A Communication Strategy
A team's communication practices can make or break a project. Constant communication via email, Slack, phone calls and in person meetings are all essential for keeping everyone on the same page, but which should be used and when? Who should be contacted and in what circumstances?
In order to set your project up for success, it’s crucial that you answer these questions with a clearly defined and well conveyed communication strategy prior to the beginning of any project work.
The How’s :
We’ve learned the hard way that important messages can get lost in busy Slack channels. In worst case scenarios this can mean missed deadlines, or dozens of man hours lost to unnecessary work on a feature that has been deemed unnecessary. For this reason we’ve created guidelines for how information should be conveyed, based on its importance.
Slack: Slack should only be used for quick questions and communication, and never for crucial pieces of information. Additionally, because it’s likely that the information being conveyed will be useful to others on the project team, we encourage communicating in a project wide channel, rather than through direct messages. Check out our Slack hacks for more helpful tips on optimizing your use of this tool.
Email: Important information and larger decisions, such as changes to the work and important deadlines should always be communicated via email, regardless of whether it has already been conveyed through other means, such as in person. Always follow up on important emails to ensure they’ve been received.
Phone Calls: While email tends to feel more comfortable for most individuals, there are times when making a phone call is a must. If an in-person meeting in person isn’t possible, we always pick up the phone whenever we must:
- Convey sensitive or negative information
- Share detailed information - clarifying questions are usually necessary
- Explain something complicated - written instructions only go so far - walking someone through a process is generally more effective.
Remember that no matter which method you use to convey important information initially, be it in person or over the phone, you should always follow it up with an email.
When communication doesn’t flow through the proper channels it contributes to inefficiencies within the team and potentially harmful miscommunications.
We’ve encountered situations in which information exchanges through improper channels have resulted in misinformed changes being made to a project unbeknownst to project leads, resulting in hours of unnecessary work and a group of very frustrated individuals.
In order to prevent these types of mishaps it’s important to start your working relationships with a contact list that clearly states who should be contacted directly, how they should be contacted, and when.
3. Set Up Your Meetings
Here at Yeti we’ve found that scheduling all of our regular meetings at the very beginning of a project is imperative. As projects move forward and schedules begin to get busier it can be nearly impossible to find collective availability for team meetings, so scheduling everything ahead of time is a must.
It’s also important to schedule each meeting on a recurring day and time to help everyone anticipate their arrival, and have the ability to attend fully prepared.
Every project’s needs are different, so your regular meetings will likely vary a bit. However, at the very least, we recommend including the following in your core set of meetings:
- Sprint Planning: This meeting should involve key individuals, such as the project manager and project leads. The goal of this meeting is to determine which backlog items will be completed during the coming sprint and by whom. During these meetings we like to play Points Poker to help us determine how much work we can actually get done during each sprint.
- Sprint Kickoff meeting: This meeting should occur just after the sprint planning meeting and include key individuals and the client/stakeholder. The goal of this meeting is to communicate your plan for the coming sprint to the client and to answer any questions they may have.
- Daily Scrum: This is a 15 minute long internal meeting focused on creating a plan for the next 24 hours. During this meeting each team member should answer the following questions:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What will you do today?
- What is blocking your progress?
- Internal check in: These should be held at least once a week and include the internal team’s project leads. This meeting should serve as a general management health check for the project and include discussion of individual and team performance.
- Stakeholder check in: These meetings are held monthly and include the internal team’s leads/managers and the client/stakeholder. Stakeholder check ins are a higher level project health check, during which the timeline is reviewed, issues are discussed and any concerns are voiced.
- Retrospectives - These should be held at the end of every sprint. Retrospectives involve candidly discussing areas of the project that are going well and areas needing improvement, with the intention of generating ideas for improvement in the next sprint, and for the teams general process as a whole. Take a look at our article on Retrospectives for fun and helpful Retro agenda ideas!
- Backlog Refinement: These should take place at the beginning of every sprint and include the entire internal team. The purpose of this meeting is to collaboratively inspect the product backlog to ensure it is clean and well organized. This involves removing duplicate tickets and ensuring that all the work that needs to be done is represented in the backlog.
- Sprint Wrap Up: This meeting is held at the end of every sprint and includes the entire team, including clients/stakeholders. During this meeting the work that has been completed during the sprint is presented, followed by client/stakeholder feedback. Changes to the product backlog, in relation to the feedback received, should be discussed at this time.
- Vision Alignment: This meeting should be held every three sprints, and involve project leads and the client/stakeholder. During this meeting the work that has been done on the project thus far should be assessed by comparing it to the benchmarks established in the project roadmap. Any project issues should be discussed, and the roadmap should be adjusted based on new inputs and strategic goals. You can learn more about vision alignment meetings in our Introduction to Applied Agile.
4. Build Your Roadmap
Whether you are developing a new product or building upon an existing one, building a product roadmap is essential to the success of your project. Your product roadmap should describe your product's expected evolution by plotting it’s journey over the course of production, giving your team a united vision to work from.
In our experience a successful product roadmap has the following attributes:
It’s flexible enough to handle iterations as they are necessary. While some level of infrastructure is important, having the ability to make changes and improvements to your product means you won’t be stuck creating an obsolete product when, in the middle of development, a competitor launches a similar product.
At any point in the development process your product roadmap should allow you to answer the following questions:
- Are we heading in the right direction?
- Are we prioritizing the right things?
- Are we heading in the right direction?
Prior to starting on your roadmap, we recommend running a discovery phase, or design sprint with your client or stakeholder during which you should run through the following exercises to ensure you are building the right product for the right users:
Create a Problem Statement and User Persona’s: Successful products solve a distinct user’s needs, so it’s important to have a clearly defined problem and a solid understanding of your users. For help with this, check out our User Persona template and guide.
Create a User Journey Map: Create a user journey map for each of your target users. This should provide insight into how the user currently tries to solve the problem and allow you to identify opportunities for your product to provide value to your users.
Generate Solutions: Focusing on these opportunities, start brainstorming solutions and ideas of how your product can solve your users’ needs. There are a lot of great exercises to help generate ideas and narrow them down strategically.
Create Epics: Epics are large chunks of work or features that would contain many user stories
Prioritize Epics: Order your epics based on feasibility, desirability, and viability. At this stage developers and designers should get to the root of how to actually build and position your product so that the users needs are met.
Map it: On a whiteboard, draw three large boxes to represent time frames. We often use “Now”, “Next” and “Later”, but you can be more specific. Place each of your epics into one of these boxes.
If you’d like additional help creating your product roadmap, take a look at our Complete Guidebook to Product Roadmapping!
5. Create Team Profiles
If you are working with a new team, collecting general information about each individual team member at the outset of the project is a great way to quickly create helpful team profiles.
We’ve found that a short list of general questions, such as “what's your favorite snack” and “what’s your learning style”, can be extremely effective in helping you to understand how best to work with your team.
It’s important to include an open ended “what else should we know about you?” question in your survey, to allow each individual the opportunity to inform you of important information that might not otherwise come up.
This will provide team members with an opportunity to inform you of helpful information, such as food allergies or general likes/dislikes, and other, possibly sensitive information - perhaps a member of the team is dyslexic and would like to let you know that they may misspell words from time to time, or is dealing with family issues that might come up during the course of the project.
It's also helpful to gain some insight into how each team member likes to be appreciated. Some individuals shy away from public recognition, while others love it. Some people like to receive gifts, and others prefer to receive words of praise. Knowing what makes people uncomfortable and what they enjoy is imperative in order to ensure that your appreciation is actually having its desired effect.
You can have each of your team members, take this quiz, based on the book “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace”, to help determine how they feel most comfortable being appreciated.
We hope you'll find these planning tips to be helpful as you begin your next project. We know that the product development process can be a complicated and sometimes overwhelming process, so feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns you stumble upon along the way!
Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.