Why every project needs a baseline project plan
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. There’s always a good chance a project will change its parameters as it progresses, in response to factors such as data gathered, lessons learned, and new developments in society, the economy or a relevant industry.
To paraphrase David Bowie, project teams need to turn to face the change. We can do this by agreeing on updates to the project plan, while a project is in progress. For example, you might increase the budget to help a project surpass the standards of a new entrant into the industry; or you might reduce a project’s scope, if delivery proves harder than expected.
Changing a project comes with the risk of oversteering in one direction or another. This can render a project unable to deliver against its critical success factors.
How to create a baseline project plan
To keep change within the parameters required for success, we need to do something called project baselining. This means putting a figure on the most important constraints the project has to work with, which usually include:
Time baseline – how long will this take?
Scope baseline – what are our deliverables?
Cost baseline – what’s our budget? (And how much can this increase in response to ROI, or projected ROI?)
Quality baseline – what are the standards the project must meet? (This baseline component is not used quite so routinely as time, scope and cost – you may or may not choose to include it.)
The answers to these questions should be mutually agreed by all the stakeholders involved in a planned project. Do this thoroughly over the course of multiple meetings, before the project starts.
The figures you come up with for the different baseline components can be considered as jointly forming a baseline project plan. Think of them as a yardstick, against which any future change to the project can be measured.
Baseline project plans quite often need to be updated, through changes to schedule, deliverables or budget. Whenever this happens, the project manager should create a new document outlining the updated plan, and add the outgoing baseline project plan to an archive containing all previous iterations.
Why having a baseline project plan is important
Keeping a record of baseline project plan iterations is useful for managing change. It enables the project manager and fellow stakeholders to assess, at a glance, how far the project has strayed from the initial baseline, and whether or not this represents an acceptable level or variance. To put it more simply, it helps us answer the questions: where are we now, and how far are we from where we should be?
When a project shows too much variance from its initial baseline project plan, this can tell the project team some hard truths. Their planning may have been unrealistic, or perhaps the project has not been executed effectively. On the other hand, if a project is well underway and there is little variance from the initial baseline project plan, we can infer that the project is in good health – at least, as far as the factors used in project baselining are concerned. Some project managers refer to this process of analysis as “planned vs. actual”.
Project baseline plans (and the overall process of product baselining) are integral to effective project management. All projects have to go with the flow – but with a project baseline plan in place, you’ll have a compass to help you navigate the currents of change in your project.