12 MIN READ

The Planning Cycle

A Planning Process for Medium-Sized Projects

The Planning Cycle - A Planning Process for Medium-Sized Projects

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Give your project a head start.

The Planning Cycle brings together all the aspects of planning a one-off, medium-sized project into a single, coherent process.

For example, let’s say your business is growing so rapidly that you need to relocate to a larger office. Great news. But the job of planning and organizing the move has fallen to you. Maybe not such great news!

You will need to consider whether the move is viable, and think about criteria for suitable premises. You’ll have to factor in costs, timings, and how to minimize business downtime.

So, where do you start? Try the Planning Cycle.

What Is the Planning Cycle?

The Planning Cycle is an eight-step process that you can use to plan any small-to-medium sized project: moving to a new office, developing a new product, or planning a corporate event, for example.

The tool enables you to plan and implement fully considered, well-focused, robust, practical, and cost-effective projects. It also helps you to learn from any mistakes you make, and to feed this knowledge back into your future planning and decision making.

Tip:

The Planning Cycle offers a framework for projects up to a certain level of complexity. For larger projects that involve many people over a long period of time, you may need to use a more formal approach.

These approaches have similar structures to the Planning Cycle, but they tend to require more documentation, and are often integrated within a wider organizational context. Our article, Project Management Phases and Processes, tells you more about them.

For shorter projects that need a fast turnaround, you should also consider Agile Project Management.

Figure 1: The Planning Cycle

Planning Cycle Diagram

Project Planning Steps

The Planning Cycle has eight steps, as outlined below.

1. Analyze Your Situation

First, clarify what you need to do. An office move, for example, would require you to find the right premises, with appropriate access and parking.

Gather as much information as possible at this stage. This will help you to formulate a more detailed and robust plan further down the line.

Start by examining your current position, and deciding how you can improve it. There are a number of techniques that can help you to do this.

One option is to carry out a SWOT Analysis. This will identify the strengths and weaknesses of your position, and the opportunities and threats that you face.

Another method is Risk Analysis, which will help you to spot potential pitfalls and weaknesses in your organization that may affect your plan, and identify any external risks. You can then use your findings to plan how you will neutralize or mitigate those risks.

For example, ask yourself whether your project is a response to pressure from customers, competitors, or new technology. Or perhaps your company is growing, and you need to make changes as a result. Pressures may arise from changes in the economy, new legislation, people's attitudes, or government.

You can also pick from a whole range of creativity tools to work out where you can make improvements Simplexity Thinking is a particularly powerful tool that helps to foster creativity and solve even the toughest problems.

2. Identify the Aim of Your Plan

When you've completed a realistic analysis of your situation, and the opportunities for change, the next step is to precisely define the aim of your plan. This sharpens your focus, and stops you from wasting effort on irrelevant issues.

Express your aim in one simple sentence, so that it's clear in your mind. If this proves difficult, try asking yourself questions like:

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  • What do I want the future to look like?

  • What benefit do I want to give to our customers?

  • What returns do I need?

  • What standards do I want to achieve?

  • What are my organization's core values?

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, Nike’s vision is to "Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. (*If you have a body, you are an athlete.)"

Mission statements explain how the vision will be achieved. For example, the mission statement for The Bristol Myers Squibb pharmaceutical company is "To discover, develop, and deliver innovative medicines that help patients prevail over serious diseases."

3. Explore Your Options

By this stage, you should have a good understanding of your situation and what you want your project to achieve. The next step is to work out how to do it! 

At this stage, it's useful to generate as many ideas as possible. Again, creativity tools can help you with this. You may be tempted to grasp at the first idea that comes to mind, but if you spend some time weighing up your options you may come up with less obvious but better solutions. Or you may build on your best ideas by using elements of others.

4. Select the Best Option

When you've explored your ideas, you need to decide which one to pursue. If you have the necessary time and resources, you might decide to do detailed planning, costing, and risk assessment work for each one. But chances are you won't have this luxury.

Instead, use tools like Decision Matrix Analysis and Decision Trees to help you to make the final selection. Use Decision Matrix Analysis to decide between different options when you need to consider a range of different factors. Decision Trees enable you to think through the likely outcomes of following different courses of action.

5. Detailed Planning

With your final decision made, you need to establish the most efficient and effective way to achieve your aim. This determines who will do what, when, where, how, why, and at what cost.

Techniques like Gantt Charts and Critical Path Analysis can be useful when working out priorities, deadlines, and how to allocate resources.

Consider how you will monitor the progress and performance of your plan, too. When robust reporting, quality assurance, and cost controls are in place, you can quickly identify and correct potential deviations from the plan.

A good plan also identifies risks and suggests contingencies. This allows you to respond effectively to setbacks or crises. You should also consider transitional arrangements – how will you keep things going while you implement the plan?

6. Evaluate the Plan and Its Impact

The next stage is to review your plan and decide whether you should implement it. It’s crucial to be objective here – even if you've done a lot of work to reach this stage, it may still not be worth your while to pursue the project.

This can be frustrating, but it's better to reach this conclusion now rather than after you have invested valuable time and resources – and your reputation – in its success. The evaluation stage gives you the opportunity to either investigate better options, or to accept that no plan is needed.

Depending on the circumstances, there are several methods you can use to evaluate your plan. 

  • Quantitative Pros and Cons is a simple technique that involves listing the plus points in one column and the minus points in another. Each point can be allocated a positive or negative score.

  • Use Cost/Benefit Analysis to decide whether the plan makes financial sense. Add up all the costs involved, and compare them with the expected benefits.

  • Force Field Analysis gives you a "big picture" view of the factors for and against your plan. This enables you to see where you can make adjustments that will help your plan to succeed. 

  • A Cash Flow Forecast enables you to ensure that you have sufficient resources for your plan, and to assess whether the project is viable. A good cash flow forecast spreadsheet lets you vary your assumptions and investigate the effects.

  • Finally, Six Thinking Hats helps you to get a rounded view of your plan and its implications by asking you to evaluate your plan from six different perspectives: rational, emotional, optimistic, pessimistic, practical, and creative.

Tip:

If your analysis shows that the plan will not give sufficient benefit, or if the negatives outweigh the positives, return to an earlier stage in the planning cycle to explore other options. Alternatively, you may conclude that the project is impractical and abandon the process altogether.

7. Implement Change

Once you have finalized your proposal, and you're confident that it will deliver, it's time to put it into action. 

If you've followed the previous steps closely then your plan should also explain how to implement it! It should also show how you will monitor its progress and execution.

8. Close the Plan and Review

All being well, your project is now complete and it was a huge success! Now it's time to close it down and assess what you've learned. Look back over the planning process and assess it carefully to see what could be improved or refined in the future.

If you'll likely carry out many similar projects, it may be worth developing a standard Post-Implementation Review. This is a list of points to consider during the planning review. It helps to ensure that you don't overlook any important aspects of the process.

The review should address key questions such as: did the project solve the original problem? Could it deliver even bigger benefits? And what lessons did you learn that you can apply to future projects?

Key Points

The Planning Cycle enables you to make viable, robust plans, and to avoid making costly mistakes. It’s suitable for any small- to medium-sized project, in most business areas. It has eight steps:

1. Analyze your situation.

2. Identify the aim of your plan.

3. Explore your options.

4. Select the best option. 

5. Detailed planning.

6: Evaluate your plan and its impact. 

7. Implement change. 

8. Close the plan.

Follow these steps carefully, and your project stands a good chance of success.

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Comments (10)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi Patty,

    Thank you for your insight on the Planning Cycle. Sometimes the planning process can feel slow, but it is, as has been said, very necessary.

    BillT
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Patty wrote
    A lot of ideas, thanks. I think we sometimes undermine the process of planning things. And as Michele wrote below, it is a process so it is totally normal it has to take some time and thought. Personally, I have to remind myself sometimes that, when there is quite little movement in my column I call 'to do/being planned', it is just normal and necessary.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi lewis111111,

    What many people fail to realize is that planning is a process. Instead, they jump to proposing solutions without clearly defining the purpose (the why) of what they are trying to accomplish. Following the steps outlined here in this article ensures that your plan is well thought through, have considered all potential options and have explored the impact your plan will have on other stakeholders.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
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