Structure projects efficiently?

Sven Flätchen

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7. February 2022

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Reading time: 6 min.
In order to successfully plan your projects and their execution, it is essential that you know all the important information and include it in your project plan. In this article, we will give you a general guide on how to approach planning and structure your projects efficiently.
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To implement projects successfully, a well-structured description of the project and the project tasks is essential and forms the basis for time as well as resource planning, the distribution of tasks and their responsibilities of your team members as well as the project monitoring.

Project planning problem

When I tackle project planning, the first difficulty is whether I have thought of all the activities that need to be completed as part of the project implementation. In this context, I then also ask myself whether I have correctly estimated the required resources and necessary times to complete the project tasks. To solve both difficulties, I design a logical structure in which I define all activities and tasks that are necessary for successful project implementation.

The nuts and bolts: the details

The top guiding principle when describing a project work is: Always think in details! In my career as a project leader and project manager, I have repeatedly found that people constantly underestimate how much time they need for the individual activities because they fail to properly schedule all the tasks that need to be done for the project from the outset and thinking was too rough.

When describing each individual task, it is important to structure it accordingly and break it down into components. This involves looking at a task in its details and defining individual elements.

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Structure tasks correctly

As shown in the example above, it makes sense to divide tasks of a project that consist of several components. It makes sense to observe the following basic rules:

  • Meaningfully structure / divide: Each task needed for the realization of a project must be defined in its components or individual units.
  • No overlap: The same activity may not be included in more than one subtask. In our example, it would not be possible for different people to edit the draft version of the report.

By breaking down the tasks into individual components, you are forced to think about the individual subtasks that need to be worked on in order to complete the individual task. This also allows you to better plan the necessary time and resources to successfully complete the project.

The right task hierarchy in your project

Thinking in details is very important. However, it is equally important to identify and organize all tasks with their individual components so that your project planning becomes efficient. Your task as a project manager:in is to think and plan comprehensively and at the same time in detail.

The following graphic is intended to illustrate how you can divide your project tasks into their components and describe the detailed tasks of your project. The project structure is a hierarchical representation of all the activities that need to be performed and completed as part of your project. These should be subdivided to the extent that planning, distribution to your team and responsibilities, as well as monitoring and project controlling do not pose any problems.

Projektstructure
Graphic 1: Project structure in general

For the structure, there are different terms in project management. The top level is usually referred to as a project, the lowest level as a task package or task folder with its components or subtasks.

With the following three questions, you can check whether you have divided your project into task packages (“folders”) and components in enough detail.

  • Ressources: Can you accurately estimate your resources, what resources are needed to complete the task described? Resources include, but are not limited to, personnel, equipment, raw materials, supplies, information, etc.
  • Time: Can you accurately estimate how long it will take to complete the task or each subtask?
  • Understanding: If you assign the task to a colleague or employee, are you sure they understand the task description exactly and know what they need to do?

If you answer no to any of these, then break the task down into more components.

Create the project structure

Damit du eine gute Projektstruktur entwickeln kannst, musst du dich mit dem Projekt vertraut machen. Ideally, you already have experience with similar projects and can adapt your structure or build it similarly. At smenso, we use the following approaches to structure projects:

  • Top-Down-Structure: Start at the top level and systematically develop detailed components and subunits for all tasks (Figure 2). First, determine which tasks need to be performed and completed in general for the entire project. Second, define the activities that are required to complete the tasks. Third, you define the sub-activities that are necessary to complete the components. Note, however, that you do not divide the task so deeply! On the one hand this is confusing from a certain depth, on the other hand most project management tools do not offer you the possibility to divide tasks too deeply. Rather use a component that you declare as a separate task (graphic 3). In smenso, we have also deliberately only allowed a certain structuring depth.
  • Brainstorming: In your reflections, write down in advance all the activities that come to mind and then organize them into different blocks. Try to create main groups and subgroups. Brainstorming is useful when there is little project experience or no reference projects and the project manager cannot yet plan in detail.

In the planning phase, it sometimes helps to use several hierarchical forms of representation to describe the project. Through the “change of perspective” you often recognize necessary tasks faster, which you would not have thought of otherwise. At the end of the planning phase, however, you should decide on a project structure so as not to confuse those involved. 

Outline of the structure
Graphic 2: Plan project structure

Sind die Aufgaben zu tief verschachtelt, dann lege eine Unteraufgabe oder Komponente als Hauptaufgabe an, beschreibe diese detaillierter und gliedere diese wieder in Teilaufgaben auf. This provides for a better understanding and for more overview of your project structure. Figure 3 illustrates the procedure: Component 2 of Task 1 was used to create a separate task branch (Task 1.2) with its own subtasks. In our contribution “How do I structure and classify my projects with smenso?” we’ll show you how to use our app to structure and outline your projects.

Strukturierung tiefe
Graphic 3: Declare component to task

Improve the quality of the project structure

If your project structure is complete, defined precisely and in detail, and is understandable to everyone involved, then nothing stands in the way of successful project implementation. The following tips should show you how you can improve your project structure.

  • Involve all stakeholders who will later complete the tasks in developing and planning the project structure.
  • Use similar and already successfully realized projects as a reference and orient yourself on their project structure. At smenso we use templates that already have a referenced project structure and make the start easier.
  • Update your structure regularly, i.e. add necessary tasks and break them down into subunits. Do not structure too deeply, but declare a task component as a separate task, which you describe and define in more detail.
  • Always keep in mind that your project structure consists of partial activities of tasks. It does not yet define the order in which which tasks must be completed. The primary purpose of the above procedures is to ensure that all activities are identified and defined.

Identify problems during planning

Creating a project structure not only helps you define all the tasks and identify components that need to be executed to realize the project, but it also helps identify unknown variables that could cause problems. During the planning phase, factors often emerge that affect or prevent the execution of a task. Sometimes these factors are known, sometimes they represent a completely unknown influencing variable to which it is then necessary to react.

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