The Planning Cycle

A Planning Process for Medium-Sized Projects

Planning is an iterative process.

© iStockphoto/djgunner

The Planning Cycle brings together all aspects of planning into a coherent, unified process.

By planning within this structure, you will help to ensure that your plans are fully considered, well focused, resilient, practical and cost-effective.

You will also ensure that you learn from any mistakes you make, and feed this back into future planning and Decision Making.

Planning using this cycle will help you to plan and manage ongoing projects up to a certain level of complexity – this will depend on the circumstance. For projects involving many people over a long period of time, more formal methodologies and approaches are necessary (see Managing Large Projects and Programs  ).

How to Use the Tool

It is best to think of planning as a cycle, not a straight-through process.

Once you have devised a plan you should evaluate whether it is likely to succeed. This evaluation may be cost or number based, or may use other analytical tools. This analysis may show that your plan may cause unwanted consequences, may cost too much, or may simply not work.

In this case you should cycle back to an earlier stage. Alternatively you may have to abandon the plan altogether – the outcome of the planning process may be that it is best to do nothing!

Finally, you should feed back what you have learned with one plan into the next.

The Planning Cycle is shown in figure 1:

The stages in this planning process are explained below:

Stage 1. Analysis of Opportunities

The first thing to do is to do is to spot what needs to be done. You will crystallize this into a formal aim at the next stage in the process.

One approach to this is to examine your current position, and decide how you can improve it. There are a number of techniques that will help you to do this:

  • SWOT Analysis  :

    This is a formal analysis of your strengths and weaknesses, and of the opportunities and threats that you face.

  • Risk Analysis  :

    This helps you to spot project risks, weaknesses in your organization or operation, and identify the risks to which you are exposed. From this you can plan to neutralize some risks.

  • Understanding pressures for change:

    Alternatively, other people (e.g. clients) may be pressing you to change the way you do things. Alternatively your environment may be changing, and you may need to anticipate or respond to this. Pressures may arise from changes in the economy, new legislation, competition, changes in people's attitudes, new technologies, or changes in government.

A different approach is to use any of a whole range of creativity tools to work out where you can make improvements. These creativity tools culminate in the powerful Simplex process  .

Stage 2. Identifying the Aim of Your Plan

Once you have completed a realistic analysis of the opportunities for change, the next step is to decide precisely what the aim of your plan is. Deciding and defining an aim sharpens the focus of your plan, and helps you to avoid wasting effort on irrelevant side issues.

The aim is best expressed in a simple single sentence. This ensures that it is clear and sharp in your mind.

If you are having difficulty in formulating the aim of your plan, ask yourself:

  • What do I want the future to be?
  • What benefit do I want to give to my customers?
  • What returns do I seek?
  • What standards am I aiming at?
  • What values do I and my organization believe in?

You can present this aim as a 'Vision Statement' or 'Mission Statement'. Vision Statements express the benefit that an organization will provide to its customers. For example, the vision statement for Mind ToolsT is: 'To enrich the quality of our customers lives by providing the tools to help them to think in the most productive and effective way possible'. While this is wordy, it explains what this site aims to do.

Mission statements give concrete expression to the Vision statement, explaining how it is to be achieved. The mission statement for this site is: 'To provide a well structured, accessible, concise survey of the best and most appropriate mind tools available'.

Stage 3. Exploring Options

By this stage you should know where you are and what you want to do. The next thing to do is to work out how to do it. The Creativity Tools section of this site explains a wide range of powerful creativity tools that will help you to generate options.

At this stage it is best to spend a little time generating as many options as possible, even though it is tempting just to grasp the first idea that comes to mind. By taking a little time to generate as many ideas as possible you may come up with less obvious but better solutions. Just as likely, you may improve your best ideas with parts of other ideas.

Stage 4. Selecting the Best Option

Once you have explored the options available to you, it is time to decide which one to use. If you have the time and resources available, then you might decide to evaluate all options, carrying out detailed planning, costing, risk assessment, etc. for each. Normally you will not have this luxury.

Two useful tools for selecting the best option are Decision Matrix Analysis   and Decision Trees  . Decision Matrix Analysis helps you to decide between different options where you need to consider a number of different factors. Decision Trees help you to think through the likely outcomes of following different courses of action.

Stage 5. Detailed Planning

By the time you start detailed planning, you should have a good picture of where you are, what you want to achieve and the range of options available to you. You may well have selected one of the options as the most likely to yield the best results.

Detailed planning is the process of working out the most efficient and effective way of achieving the aim that you have defined. It is the process of determining who will do what, when, where, how and why, and at what cost.

When drawing up the plan, techniques such as use of Gantt Charts   and Critical Path Analysis   can be immensely helpful in working out priorities, deadlines and the allocation of resources.

While you are concentrating on the actions that need to be performed, ensure that you also think about the control mechanisms that you will need to monitor performance. These will include the activities such as reporting, quality assurance, cost control, etc. that are needed to spot and correct any deviations from the plan.

A good plan will:

  • State the current situation.
  • Have a clear aim.
  • Use the resources available.
  • Detail the tasks to be carried out, whose responsibility they are, and their priorities and deadlines.
  • Detail control mechanisms that will alert you to difficulties in achieving the plan.
  • Identify risks, and plan for contingencies. This allows you to make a rapid and effective response to crises, perhaps at a time when you are at low ebb or are confused following a setback.
  • Consider transitional arrangements – how will you keep things going while you implement the plan?

Stage 6. Evaluation of the Plan and its Impact

Once you have worked out the details of your plan, the next stage is to review it to decide whether it is worth implementing. Here you must be objective – however much work you have carried out to reach this stage, the plan may still not be worth implementing.

This is frustrating after the hard work of detailed planning. It is, however, much better to find this out now than when you have invested time, resources and personal standing in the success of the plan. Evaluating the plan now gives you the opportunity to either investigate other options that might be more successful, or to accept that no plan is needed or should be carried out.

Depending on the circumstances, the following techniques can be helpful in evaluating a plan:

  • PMI   (Plus/Minus/Interesting):

    This is a good, simple technique for 'weighing the pros and cons' of a decision. It involves listing the plus points in the plan in one column, the minus points in a second column, and the implications and points of uncertainty of the plan in a third column. Each point can be allocated a positive or negative score.

  • Cost/Benefit Analysis  :

    This is useful for confirming that the plan makes financial sense. This involves adding up all the costs involved with the plan, and comparing them with the expected benefits.

  • Force Field Analysis  :

    Similar to PMI, Force Field Analysis helps you to get a good overall view of all the forces for and against your plan. This allows you to see where you can make adjustments that will make the plan more likely to succeed.

  • Cash Flow Forecasts  :

    Where a decision is has mainly financial implications, such as in business and marketing planning, preparation of a Cash Flow Forecast can be extremely useful. It allows you to assess the effect of time on costs and revenue. It also helps in assessing the size of the greatest negative and positive cash flows associated with a plan. When it is set up on a spreadsheet package, a good Cash Flow Forecast also functions as an extremely effective model of the plan. It gives you an easy basis for investigating the effect of varying your assumptions.

  • "6 Thinking Hats"  :

    6 Thinking Hats is a very good technique to use to get a rounded view of your plan and its implications. It provides a context within which you can examine a plan rationally, emotionally, optimistically, pessimistically and creatively.

Any analysis of your plan must be tempered by common sense.

If your analysis shows that the plan either will not give sufficient benefit, then either return to an earlier stage in the planning cycle or abandon the process altogether.

Stage 7. Implementing Change

Once you have completed your plan and decided that it will work satisfactorily, it is time to implement it. Your plan will explain how! It should also detail the controls that you will use to monitor the execution of the plan.

Stage 8. Closing the Plan

Once you have achieved a plan, you can close the project. At this point is often worth carrying out an evaluation of the project to see whether there are any lessons that you can learn. This should include an evaluation of your project planning to see if this could be improved.

If you are going to be carrying out many similar projects, it may be worth developing and improving an Aide Memoire  . This is a list of headings and points to consider during planning. Using it helps you to ensure that you do not forget lessons learned in the past.

Key Points

The Planning Cycle is a process that helps you to make good, well-considered, robust plans.

The first step, the analysis of opportunities, helps you to base the plan firmly in reality. The second, definition of the aim, gives your plan focus.

The third stage is to generate as many different ways for achieving this aim as possible. By spending time looking for these you may find a better solution than the obvious one, or may be able to improve the obvious solution with parts of other ones.

Next select the best approach, and make a detailed plan showing how to implement it. Evaluate this plan to make sure that it will be worth implementing. If it is not, return to an earlier stage and either improve the plan or make a different one. If no plan looks like producing enough benefit to justify the cost, make no changes at all.

Once you have selected a course of action, and have proved that it is viable, carry it out. Once it is finished, examine it and draw whatever lessons you can from it. Feed this back into future planning.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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