A Quick Guide to Project Execution
Every project needs a game plan.
In project management speak, that game plan is called project execution—a step-by-step outline of how you're going to keep a project on track, on budget, and deliver it on time. Your project execution should include everything, from the project's scope to a deliverable plan.
The reason project execution doesn't always go to plan often comes down to planning. A project management study by Wellingtone found only 55% of project managers create a scope document before executing projects, and just 30% break up large projects into smaller tasks with their own deliverables and evaluations, making them harder to track.
Now we won't drag out the "failing to plan is planning to fail" line, but what we will do is give you a detailed breakdown about:
What project execution is and its purpose
Why you need a project execution plan
How to create a project execution plan
Ready? Let's get planning 👩💻
What is project execution, and what is its purpose?
Project execution is when project planning is put into action and tasks and deliverables are monitored to ensure the project succeeds.
Tracking and monitoring every project element once it kicks off can make the difference between whether it sinks or swims. According to Project Management Institute, metrics that indicate whether a project will succeed come down to staying on budget, delivering tasks on time, and not falling victim to scope creep.
It may be easier to put it like this: no matter how well you plan your projects and how much time is spent in pre-launch meetings, you should prepare for stuff to go wrong. If you do, you'll be in a better position to manage it and fix it so your project doesn't get knocked off the rails.
That's where project execution comes in.
It tracks your project in real-time so you can fix issues immediately, instead of waiting until the end of the project to look back and spot where money was being wasted or your team was taking too long to reach a milestone. As John Rossman highlights in Think Like Amazon, companies need to act in real-time to avoid any problems.
"Today, you need real-time data, real-time monitoring, and real-time alarms when trouble is brewing—not lag-time metrics that hide the real issues for 24 hours or longer," he says.
"Your business should operate like a nuclear reactor.
"If a problem arises, you need to be aware of it immediately."
No matter if the project your team is working on is set to last two weeks or two months, the purpose of the project execution phase is the same:
Carrying out the work in the project scope
Coordinating the team's work
Acting in real-time to course-correct if the project runs into difficulty
Managing costs and budgets
Maintaining communication with the client
Hosting regular status meetings to make sure your team is on the same page and the project stays schedule
Delivering the project on time and on budget
Keep in mind that no matter how long you spend in the project's planning phase, the execution phase is almost always the longest part of the project—and the most challenging. If your project is going to fail or survive, it'll happen during the execution.
Which is exactly why you need a project execution plan.
Why do you need a project execution plan?
A project execution plan brings together all of your careful planning and puts it into action.
Think of it as a battle plan.
In your battle plan, you'll map out how to execute and overcome:
✅ Your project's deliverables: Like tasks and milestones. Everything needs to be reviewed, checked for mistakes, tested, and checked again.
📈 Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): These are the indicators you measure your efforts against, like how much money you're spending or how long your team is taking to complete each of their tasks.
🚧 Speedbumps: What happens if somebody on your team gets sick? If the client starts asking for stuff outside of their scope? If the building catches on fire? Planning for risks in every project is crucial.
To put it simply, having a project execution plan helps you assign tasks and responsibilities, set clear expectations and deliverables, and gives you a way to course-correct if you hit any issues. By creating a clear execution plan, Filling Execution Gaps' Todd Williams says project managers can avoid the "six execution gaps" that stop projects from being successful:
Absence of common understanding
Disengaged executive sponsors
Misalignment with strategic goals
Poor change management
Ineffective corporate governance
Now you know what a project execution plan is and why it's so important—let's make one.
How to create a project execution plan
Step 1: Kick things off with a project execution meeting
Once all of a project's early planning is finished, instead of diving straight in—have a team meeting so everyone is on the same page.
Now, project execution meetings look a little different from the standard weekly catch-ups you have with your team. That's because there's a lot to get through: you need to give your team a detailed rundown of the project's timelines, deliverables, scope, and budgets.
Everyone involved in the project, from stakeholders to designers to team leaders, should be at the meeting to see what the project timeline looks like and have a chance to discuss any issues or concerns they have.
Once everyone has their meeting invites—you need to finalize the project plan.
The easiest way to do this is with a project management software that will monitor the project in real-time once it kicks off. A tool like Teamwork keeps track of everything from the high-level objectives and budgets down to risks and deliverables, and you can plan everything on a template.
You can give your team a clear idea of what to expect with a simple project plan like this one:
And, using the Workload feature, allocate tasks and deliverables to each team member so everything can be tracked in real-time without overloading their capacity.
Kicking off the project execution phase like this allows everyone to see what tasks they have coming up and makes sure everyone is on the same page from day 1.
Step 2: Monitor and control every risk
No project is going to be risk-free, no matter how much you plan.
Which is exactly why you need to expect risks to happen and have a plan to control them when they do.
If you've got a small team, somebody getting sick could throw a massive spanner in the works. If your team is working from an office, there's a (tiny) chance that a fire could interrupt work for weeks. The best way to pre-empt and manage these risks is to:
Interview stakeholders to find out about risks which have affected the organization or team's previous projects
Identify external risks using a situational analysis framework such as PESTEL (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, Legal)
Analyze your project planning documentation to identify the inherent risks of the project
Then, create a list of any risks that could impact your project and create a plan for dealing with them. And, like eating your vegetables, you should tackle the hard parts of your project first. That way, if something does happen, it's more likely that you've already completed the important stuff.
Pro-tip: Monitoring risks can be a time-consuming and mind-numbing process. Using a tool like Teamwork, you can add risks to a list when you discover them, tag them with a probability, and weigh how much impact they would have on your projects. Here's a quick rundown of how it works:
Step 3: Manage everything in real-time
There's no way to deliver a project on time if you aren't tracking its progress.
When Wellingtone asked organizations how they tracked their projects, 55% said they didn't have access to real-time KPIs, making it impossible to track project deliverables and budgets. In fact, many organizations said they were still manually building project reports, which makes it impossible to catch problems in real-time.
It's essential to create measurable goals and KPIs like cycle time, resource capacity, and budget variance during the project planning process. Once the project kicks off, you should track these KPIs in real-time against your goals to make sure the project stays on track.
Managing your project also means you need to have regular check-ins with your team. We suggest two ways of doing this during the project execution phase:
👨👩👦👦 Daily huddles: A quick 30 minutes every morning to talk to your team about what's in store for their day and give everyone a chance to talk through any issues they're having. Not only do daily huddles bring a teamwork vibe to a project, but they also create accountability—if someone says they're going to do something during the morning huddle, you can follow up with them the following day to make sure they got it done.
📈 Progress meetings: Longer meetings that happen every week (or month, if it's a bigger project) where you can talk through timelines, progress, milestones, and potential issues.
Another important part of your project execution will be keeping an eye on scope creep. Sometimes a client will ask for extras that weren't in the initial scope or push for a load of changes that can quickly blow out your project's budget.
While you can't ignore these requests (and you shouldn't), there are ways to deal with scope creep when you're executing a project that keeps your client happy. Managing Partner at Revenue River, Eric Pratt, says he likes to approach scope creep discussions as openly as possible.
"When we're presented with an ask, we'll say something like, 'Absolutely — as you know, that wasn't really part of our project scope, but we're happy to do that for you and always welcome more work," he says.
"We'll talk to the client about how they want to handle it: are we trading something out so it's not going to hurt your numbers, are we adding it, are we deprioritizing or pushing something else out?
"Just really embrace it head-on in a positive, non-confrontational, open manner."
Step 4: Check everything before the project is delivered
The final step of the project execution phase is making sure you sign-off on everything.
It's up to you as the project manager to test, accept, and approve every piece of the project before it's handed over to your client. Remember, mistakes happen. But it's up to you to catch them in the final phase of the project, so the final product is free from mistakes, bugs, and defects.
The good news is that with a well-planned project execution plan, you won't be worried about late deliverables and bloated budgets—so you'll have time to do the final checks on every project in your pipeline.
For more details about getting started with a project execution tool — check out Teamwork.