In the world of enterprise IT work, there are risks, choices, victories, and consequences. A manager needs to use all of their talents and intelligence to make decisions because the wrong choice could end in disaster, even unemployment says Bryan Nielson is an IT work management expert at AtTask.

One of the most important steps in the life cycle of work that you manage is planning. How do you approach the challenges of effectively planning for your team and department?

Because you are a pro, you most likely rely on best practices within a refined set of planning phases that ensure success such as:

  • Requirements. Gathering the requests, needs, and product specifications outlined by project stakeholders.
  • Demand. Covering the intake, demand forecasting, and estimation part of the process.
  • Resources. Planning and assigning the right people, with the right skills, to the right work at the right time.
  • Expectations. Wrangling the subjective parts of the deliverables such as design, user experience, reliability, and other pieces that are hard to document.

These steps are standard but be careful. Mixed in with sound best practices, there are many traps within IT work and project planning that we have accepted as ‘just the way it is.’ Strictly sticking to every tradition can doom the completion of projects or other deliverables.

Rather, there are some modern approaches to planning we can glean from recent research and other work methodologies such as agile and enterprise work management to better accomplish better work planning.

Let's walk through these four planning phases and outline a few of these modern approaches:

1. Make requirements gathering more than a list

In this phase or any other, your goal is a successful end result and happy stakeholders. Yet 60 to 80 per cent of all projects fail due to poor gathering, analysis, and management of requirements.

A traditional IT manager might manage requirements by scheduling multiple meetings, storing notes in a Word or Excel document and chasing people down. Later, change requests come in via email, chat, spreadsheets, or task managers. These input methods result in wasted time and inevitable adjustments at every step, while deadlines extend and budgets inflate.

Instead try these other practices to improve your requirements gathering right away:

Start with the end in mind

Meet with your team and stakeholders and agree to a plan of requirements that works backwards from the desired end result. This way you can see the big picture and you will find ways to collaborate effectively and make educated task assignments. It also allows you to map out, from the beginning, those who should be involved in status updates, how often to have updates, and how the work will be documented and reviewed.

Gather basic requirements and work in chunks

Get the basic requirements documented in the kick off, to understand priority, and begin to tackle specific work in chunks. Then, when priorities shift or new requests come in, the team is flexible enough to iterate while keeping the end goal in sight and stakeholders happy.

Document and track requirements faithfully

In traditional project management, gathering requirements involves a huge amount of data in disparate forms such as documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Instead, document everything in a central tool to help limit meetings, cut down on additions, and act as a reference to original agreements, deadlines, and resources.

2. Balance the elements of demand management

A traditional IT project manager builds an idealistic plan for demand based on theoretical resources, workloads, budget, and capacity. However, too much focus on the ideal or a mono focus on supply can be a detriment to truly planning demand. This can lead to frustration, ineffectiveness, and falling short of business objectives.

Balance and visibility are the keys. This means controlling demand to match resources and vice versa, while constantly keeping that seesaw balanced. At the center of it all is your company’s business objectives.

To effectively strike a balance, here are some other things you need to succeed in the demand management phase:

Know the demand

This means having full visibility into not just the number of projects in your queue but potential resources needed on each of those projects. When you can see all workload allocations and can compare the hours needed against the requested work, you can see if you’re overcommitted.

Understand workloads and know the business objectives

Business objectives are the means by which you measure the value of projects. Translate these business objectives into criteria for the acceptance or rejection of requests. Then hold people to the work acceptance criteria and empower people to say ‘no’ when criteria are not met.

Be prepared for unplanned work

As an IT professional, you have surely learned by now that even the best-laid plans can be interrupted. This unplanned demand is often driven by actual crises, but often urgency can be more imagined than real. Not to worry. The request process you’ve put in place will weed out the good from the crazy.

3. Plan resources with the big picture in mind

Traditional resource allocation undervalues getting visibility into current workloads and allowing assignments to be made by the loudest stakeholder. This creates an atmosphere of forcing ad hoc assignments into existing projects, dismissing work truly aligned with business objectives.

Resources need to be managed by learning from previous project data and assigned based on that data, avoiding assignments dropped into queues without regard to process or proper sequences.

Here are four valuable ways to stay on top of resource management:

  1. Have a functioning resource allocation process
  2. Start by ranking work based on top business needs and deadlines. Determine which work can be done with who you have and how many hours it should take, focusing on the deliverables most important to company strategy.
  3. Get the right people on the right job at the right time
  4. Your tendency will be to turn to individuals you can count on, but be careful not to burn out your superstars. Negotiate job load to avoid overtaxing high performers, take time to plan everyone’s hours and workloads, and maintain some resource hours in reserve.

Use time tracking effectively and appropriately

Tracking time will let you know if your resources are over-allocated. If it is simplified and embedded into your team’s workflow, it is less painful and will be more accurate and complete. This means the data you analyse can be used to refine your estimates and use that information to drive improvements.

4. Feed expectations through effective communication

A traditional IT project manager communicates through status meetings, email, desk drop-ins, and instant messenger. By the time they communicate everything to everyone, info is already out of date. Collaborative, unified, effective work is out the window.

There are better ways to manage expectations than simply hoping for the best. Align the reality and perception of expectations through these three tips:

Communicate early and often about expectations and requirements

The expectations you need to address are the deliverables that are difficult to document such as design, user experience, and other subjective pieces. Avoid using email and other one-off tools to manage stakeholder expectations. Once a frank discussion is had about the subjective elements of the project, review with your team which expectations might be problematic, either to define or to meet.

Have a defined communication and notification plan

A communication plan that allows for frequent dialogue with key players will be critical to your success and set context for communicating with the team and stakeholders. It could outline how reporting and notifying will be done, how often updates will be pushed, how disagreements will be handled, and who has what role and when to talk to that person. Agree to this upfront. Your ability to manage the perceptions of each individual associated with the project is the key to managing expectations.

Plan for change

Despite your perfect plan, there will be fire drills, adjustments, and the occasional panic. Be prepared to have discussions regarding the reality of unrealistic requests. Document what can be done without major stakeholder approval and what cannot, so you can iterate and act fast when changes arise. Be careful not to set up a change management plan that necessitates bringing every person back together each time a project changes.

The result: a plan for future success

Ideally, taking a chance on less traditional methods of planning as well as finding a single solution to manage it all ensures conquering these four disciplines once and for all. Success will come as you work iteratively, organize your planning, and give executives, stakeholders, and other managers visibility into your project and other work planning. With the right process, tool, and a little teamwork between management and IT, an organisation can transform its IT team from a rag tag bunch of misfits into to a well-honed A-Team for business success.