Planning Your Project Using a Facilitated Workshop

Posted on: January 24th, 2017 by Jim

The Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (5th Edition) details 47 processes to use from Initiation through Closing. Of these, fully 24 – more than half – are in Planning. So guess what message is being sent here? Many of my students (not to mention customers) tell me that they are not given enough time to plan and so begin project execution with a minimum of preparation.

I’ve detailed elsewhere my analogy about having an architect build a house without a blueprint. And so if we agree that such a thing is needed, what’s preventing it from being created? Maybe it’s time, maybe it’s money, maybe it’s knowledge (or lack thereof.)

So planning is essential but how to get it done when your team members are scattered around the world and are working on ten other projects? I can say that I’ve had good success in this area by facilitating or co-facilitating project management planning sessions.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the method I’m going to (very) briefly describe isn’t feasible in its full flowering in many organizations. But even if not, it is often possible to do a stripped-down version.

So basically what I’m suggesting is a two-day facilitated workshop which would include members of the multifunctional (sales, operations, IT, etc.) team coming together to plan the project. Expensive? Sure. Time-consuming? To some extent. But let me ask this question – how is your current method of project planning working out for ya? If it “ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And yours may not be “broke” but I bet you can find areas for improvement!

So the goal here in that two-day window is to produce certain deliverables, namely Work Breakdown Structures, initial schedule and risk register. (And, if time, a RACI). Additionally, each function can provide a brief presentation on how the world looks from their point of view. (Virtual attendance is, of course, entirely feasible but there’s no substitute for face-to-face if you can afford it.)

As you might imagine, it takes a fair amount of time to plan for your planning meeting. You need an agenda, you need to invite the right players (sponsor is a must!), and you need to understand the hidden agendas and in general the ‘politics’ of the larger project (albeit temporary) organization. And since the attendees are your stakeholders, you must set expectations. “We’re not here to discuss requirements or hash over the last six projects.” Focus!

And so, during those two days in a (preferably) off-site conference room, after introductions, speech by the sponsor and each team’s report, the hard (but actually fun) work begins of creating a Work Breakdown Structure, beginning with facilitation of individual groups’ creation of their own ‘sub-WBSs’. This is a very hands-on activity involving flip charts and Post-It™ notes.

If you’ve never worked using flip charts and “stickies” in a room with a dedicated team, trust me, it can be a great eye-opening, bonding experience. (Sure, it could go the other way and turn into a contentious mud-slinging festival, but it’s your job to prevent that.) I was doing one of these meetings about a year ago and a woman from the company’s Center of Excellence said, “They’re having some really difficult conversations.” And after a pause, she turned to me and said, “But they’re necessary. And it’s great.”

The development of the schedule can typically begin on day one and continue on the second day. If issues have arisen, (technical, personal, or otherwise), the co-facilitator should conduct breakout sessions to discuss those. Smaller functions can start on their list of risks. At some point, you’ll want to project the schedule to a screen for everyone to see.

Much of this second day will be spent in connecting dependencies, re-thinking Work Breakdown Structures (always happens), and recording risks. (Your sponsor should have brought in an initial list of risks which invariably tend to include resource as well as technical risks).

When the meeting is over, participants typically roll up their flip charts and/or take pictures of the various artifacts that have been created. There is more work to be done but you will find that if the meeting is well-run you have gotten very far very fast in a way that would have been almost impossible any other way. And – importantly – you now have a team, not a collection of people.

Shameless plug: My friend and colleague Rich Maltzman (who edited this post) and I are working on a book which, if all goes well, will be published in late 2017. Working Title – Facilitating Project Planning Meetings: A Practical Guide to Ensuring Project Success.

We’d love your input! We’ve set up a brief survey wherein you share with us your war stories from planning meetings or meetings of any kind. If you leave us your email address, we might even ask you for permission to include a quote or anecdote if it perfectly illustrates the story.

You can check it out here.


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