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Creating a project plan that works

By Cheryl Toth, MBA  bio

A wise friend of mine once said, “Ideas are a dime a dozen.” I agree. Ideas are little more than creative puffs of air if you don’t do anything to implement them.

Brainstorming and strategic discussions can birth a bunch of possibilities for improving patient collections or reenergizing referral streams. But in order to successfully execute any of these projects you’ve got to develop an effective plan. One that includes timelines, tasks, and owners, and that can be used to manage to the finish line.

Here’s how to create a project plan that works.

Be focused and granular.
I used to create elaborate implementation plans that included phases and sections and sub-sections. They failed for two reasons: One, they were simply overwhelming and hard to manage. And two, when a project plan is too big, it’s difficult to revise the plan when you are faced with the unexpected—like when a staffer quits or a milestone is delayed.

Over time, I’ve realized that the best project plans don’t try to do too much. Although for large projects you do need an overarching plan, keep that plan high level, and bite off project chunks as you move through the timeline, drilling deep on tasks and deadlines in each chunk. This granularity yields better results and provides the flexibility to pivot your plan and modify missed deadlines before you drill down on the next chunk.

Keep it simple.
I’ve worked with dozens of project management software tools and apps over the years. In my experience, it takes more time for practices to fiddle around with and update the software than to use a simple table in Excel or Google Spreadsheets. A table is a clear and easy way to manage the linear nature of a project plan. And, it’s easy to print and hand to the physicians to illustrate what you’ve accomplished. Here’s an example:

Project: Implementing Secure Messaging

Task Owner Due Done Status Notes
1. Research the features and pricing of 5-7 secure messaging platforms Judy, Bill 10/15 10/13 Done  
2. Write summary for team review Judy, Bill 10/30 10/31 Done  
3. Schedule demos of team favorites Bill 11/15   In process 1 scheduled; waiting for 2 more to reply
4. Summarize pros and cons from the team and present for decision Judy 12/10   Not started  

Assign an owner for each task.
No owner, no accountability. And, managers must delegate the majority of the tasks. Assign too many tasks to yourself and you’ll often find the project runs behind. Spreading responsibilities across the team engages everyone, and a team will accomplish more than an individual.

When certain tasks require several people to complete, list all the individuals you’ve assigned, but choose a “Lead” person who is ultimately accountable for completing the task. For larger organizations, I often replace the Owner column with two columns: one for Lead and one for Team.

Make sure you explain to each task owner what he or she is being asked to do, why, and what your expectations are. A manager’s job is to guide employees to the best possible outcome. Sometimes this means spending a bit more time explaining the “why” behind what you have assigned, and addressing questions and concerns. If you are “too busy” to have a conversation with each task owner, don’t be surprised when tasks are not done well, not done on time, or not done at all.

Set deadlines for each task.
Due dates are critical and they only become real when you write them down. Some will change as you move through the project. That’s ok. Simply update the deadlines so your project plan stays current.

Something else to remember about deadlines is that almost everything will take longer than you think it will. That’s because you are asking people to complete tasks that are above and beyond their daily activities. Handle this by padding your timeline by 50%. So, if you think a task will take someone two weeks, make the deadline for three. This will improve the chance your timeline stays on track.

Relentlessly revise the plan.
The downfall of many otherwise good project plans is the failure to update and revise them as tasks are completed and priorities shift.

It’s the rare case that the project plan you complete is the one you started with. Project plans must be fluid, given the fact that you are managing them alongside regular job duties, staff vacations, and employee turnover. As Peter Drucker says, a plan is a statement of intention rather than a commitment. You stand a better chance of achieving results if you modify your plan’s “intentions” based on both internal and external business realities.

To update the plan, enter actual completion dates for each task in the Done column. And until a task is complete, enter progress that has been made in the Status column. Use the Notes column to log reminders or roadblocks so you don’t forget about them.

Review and update the plan weekly, or each time staff complete a task. Depending on the size of your practice and the project complexity, the weekly update might require a team review session. For smaller projects you may only need to check-in with task owners by email.

Follow up with task owners as due dates approach. Expect them to explain why a task has not been completed, and commit to a new deadline. And each time you update the plan, distribute it to the team so they see progress.

Provide a monthly update to the physicians.
Communicating the amount of work that’s been done and the status of the project demonstrates positive teamwork and productivity. Provide the project plan table or a written, bullet point summary, and a quick verbal update of the overall status.

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