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Project planning isn't just a phase—it's the backbone of successful project management. While all managers have their go-to methods, changing times and shifting project landscapes call for a continuous upgrade in our toolkits. 

So, whether you're refining your current processes or searching for innovative techniques to take your plans to the next level, the right project planning software and techniques bring an extra bit of clarity, efficiency, and brilliance. 

10 Project Planning Techniques to Know

Diving into project planning can be overwhelming, but the right techniques can be game-changers for your project team and all stakeholders. Here are 10 of the most useful methods that every project manager should know:

1. Critical Path Method

What it is: Ever looked at your project and thought, "Where do I even start?" Enter the critical path method (CPM). Think of it as your project's compass, guiding you through the most crucial tasks that lead straight to your end goal.

How it works: tasks are plotted out like stops on a subway map with arrows (our tracks) showing the sequence and interdependencies to identify the shortest possible duration. And much like a subway rush hour, if one station faces delays, it's going to ripple through the line. 

Why use it? CPM lets you predict potential hiccups by calculating early and late start/finish times for every task. The upshot? You see your project's life cycle, pinpoint those mega-important tasks, and prep resources in advance.

2. Critical Chain Method

What it is: While CPM is all about the task path, the critical chain method (CCM) is its savvy sibling that says, "Wait a minute, what about the resources?" It's a method that puts resource constraints center stage, realizing that even the best-laid plans can get derailed when the tools or team aren't available.

How it works: First, we've got our critical path. Picture it as the backbone of your project—the stack of pivotal individual tasks that can’t start until the preceding one ends. It's the non-negotiable sequence of task dependencies.

Then there’s the resource aspect. CCM urges you to spot potential bottlenecks and gear up in advance. Think about it: if one task is resource-intensive, you can't just jump into the next dependent task. Proper prep here ensures you're not left scrambling, especially when up against a strict time frame.

Why use it? The CCM magic is resource buffers. These are your safety nets. Whether it's extra days tacked on to absorb any delays or a pool of resources kept on standby, these buffers are your insurance against unpredictability.

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3. Work Breakdown Structure

What it is: Think of a work breakdown structure (WBS) as your project's family tree. Starting big and branching out into finer details, WBS is that friend who loves to categorize everything. Whether mapping out deliverables, sub-tasks, or breaking your project into phases, this task management technique is ideal.

How it woks: For those quick and snappy projects, a deliverable-based WBS slices your work into bite-sized tasks. Got a marathon project on your hands? A phase-based approach is your go-to, helping you navigate the long haul. 

Why use it? WBS is your assurance that no stone is left unturned, helping you dodge those sneaky scope creeps, dish out roles, and stay on track.

4. Cost Breakdown Structure

What it is: The cost breakdown structure (CBS) is the financial guru of the project world. Imagine being able to see, at a glance, where every dollar is going. That's CBS for you, categorizing costs from labor and materials to overhead, making sure your project doesn't burn a hole in your pocket.

How it works: This technique breaks down your budget like a pie chart, showing you exactly where your cash is headed. Notice a spending spree in one area? CBS helps you catch it before it becomes a budgetary black hole. 

Why use it? By giving you a ringside seat to your project's finances, it empowers you to pull the reins in on overspending, reallocate funds, and make sure every penny is put to good use. CBS isn’t just about keeping an eye on spending; it’s about ensuring every dollar works as hard as you do.

5. Gantt Charts

What it is: The poster child of project planning is the Gantt chart. It's that vibrant, visual map of your project's journey, laying out tasks, timelines, and everything in between. It's the best way to see a project’s life story at a glance.

How it works: On a Gantt chart, each task is represented by a bar; the position and length of the bar reflect the start date, duration, and end date of the task, facilitating an easy understanding of the project schedule and dependencies.

Why use it? By plotting out tasks against time, Gantt charts bring your project to life in technicolor. You'll spot overlaps, see who's doing what, and even find those precious moments of downtime. But it's not all about pretty visuals. With a Gantt chart in your toolkit, you're equipped with a roadmap to success. 

6. Scrum 

What it is: Scrum is a methodology that offers guiding principles and processes aimed at enhancing outcomes. It's especially popular within software development, and stands out for its emphasis on flexibility, teamwork, and making steady, iterative progress towards clear objectives.

How it works: The Scrum process is driven by Sprints: short, time-boxed periods where teams complete select tasks. Daily meetings ensure alignment, while end-of-Sprint reviews and retrospectives foster continued improvement.

Why use it? The real beauty of this methodology is that five or ten days is all that's required to take a project form an idea to the testing phase.

7. SAFe

What it is: The Scaled Agile Framework is a set of organization and workflow patterns that guide enterprises in scaling lean and agile practices. It's designed to provide a flexible and comprehensive model for large-scale, complex projects, integrating agile methodologies like Scrum, Kanban, and Lean thinking to promote alignment, collaboration, and delivery.

How it works: SAFe is visualized as a multi-layered framework in project planning, with each layer representing different levels of the organization like Team, Program, Large Solution, and Portfolio. This visualization facilitates the alignment of strategy with execution, showing how different teams contribute.

Why use it? Essentially, SAFe can help you coordinate efforts, manage risks, and maintain a focus on continuous improvement and delivery at scale.

8. Kanban 

What it is: Kanban is a popular project management method that originated from lean manufacturing principles, particularly from the Toyota Production System. It emphasizes continuous delivery without overburdening the development team, and is useful when tasks vary in priority and complexity.

How it works: Kanban is visualized using a board and cards, where each card represents a task, and the board is divided into columns that represent different stages of the process, such as "To Do," "In Progress," and "Done."

Why use it? Kanban is teams to visualize their work, limit work-in-progress, and maximize flow. By focusing on completing current tasks before taking on new ones, it helps reduce bottlenecks and manage workloads.

9. Risk Management Planning 

What it is: Risk management planning is a critical component of project planning that involves identifying, analyzing, and responding to potential risks that can impact a project's success. This not only minimizes the likelihood and impact of negative events, but capitalizes on opportunities that may arise.

How it works: It involves systematically identifying risks (such as financial uncertainties, legal liabilities, strategic management errors, and accidents), assessing their potential impact, and developing strategies to manage them.

Why use it? It will help you in developing contingency plans, allocating resources for risk mitigation, and continuously monitoring risks throughout the project lifecycle. This all helps in ensuring that projects are delivered on time, within budget, and to the desired quality standards, while improving resilience.

10. PERT

What it is: The Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) is a project planning tool used for managing and scheduling complex projects. Developed in the 1950s for the U.S. Navy's Polaris submarine project, (yes, really) PERT involves creating a flowchart (known as a PERT chart) that outlines the tasks required for project completion, estimated durations, and dependencies.

How it works: PERT employs a probabilistic approach to time estimates, using optimistic, pessimistic, and most likely completion times for each task.

Why use it? PERT is great for projects with a high degree of uncertainty. This allows project managers such as yourself to identify critical paths (the longest stretch of dependent activities) and potential bottlenecks. By doing so, PERT helps in effective scheduling, resource allocation, and risk management, ensuring more accurate time estimations and efficient project execution.

Read more about how PERT compares to CPM.

What Are Project Planning Techniques?

Project planning techniques are your go-to strategies when mapping out how to tackle a project. Think of them as your toolbox—each is a different tool that helps you stay on track, use your resources wisely, and meet deadlines.

Remember when Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”? That guy was onto something. In our world of project management, a little preparation can go a long, long way. By selecting the right techniques for your project, you can set up a successful project plan.

What is Project Planning?

Project planning is that crucial stage where you're mapping out your game plan. It's like laying out the blueprint before building a house. This phase is all about setting up your project's trajectory, leaning into project management techniques, knowing where you're headed, and how to get there.

Project Planning Tools

So, you've got the techniques down, but let's not forget about the tools that make our project planning lives a whole lot easier. 

First up, project management software solutions. From intuitive dashboards that give you a bird’s eye view of your project's progress to handy notification systems that ensure no task or milestone goes unnoticed—these tools are the backbone of modern project planning. 

Need to collaborate in real-time with your team? There's an app for that. Looking to track those ever-so-important KPIs? You bet there's a way. Worried about keeping up with the project schedule? There’s a tool for that too.

Then we have project management templates. Instead of starting from scratch, these ready-to-use frameworks save you time, energy, and a whole lot of head-scratching. You might find our project plan template useful!

And who could forget communication tools? Keeping everyone on the same page isn't easy. Whether it’s video conferencing for in-depth strategy sessions, a chat tool for quick check-ins, or feedback platforms to gather team insights, the right PM tools ensure your project runs like a well-oiled machine.

Each of these integrations help to improve functionality, prioritize project scope, and implement a step-by-step process that brings success.

Check out our master list of the best project planning tools here.

Mastering The Project Planning Game

As we wrap up our deep dive into project planning techniques and tools, a few key takeaways become clear:

  • successful projects aren’t about chance—they're about choice. The choice to adopt effective techniques, harness tools, and remain committed.
  • There's a project planning technique suited to any project you need to plan
  • There's always room for continuous improvement. Don't be afraid to play around or try a new project planning technique. You've got this!

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Ben Aston
By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of thedpm.com. I've been in the industry for more than 20 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony. I'm a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and productivity nut!