What is the planning cycle?

The planning cycle enables organizations to perform activities successfully and achieve goals across projects of various sizes. The planning cycle is most effective for small to medium-sized projects.

Understanding the planning cycle

The planning cycle enables organizations to plan and then implement robust, practical, cost-effective, and well-considered projects. 

The planning and implementation process is iterative in the sense that insights are fed back into the cycle to be incorporated into future projects.

Alternatively, project managers may move back to an earlier stage of the cycle.

Whatever the case, project planning is a cycle within a cycle (like other management functions) since objectives are modified or new ones are created as new information comes to hand. 

The planning cycle is most effective for small to medium-sized projects.

For larger, complex projects where project management becomes a technical discipline in its own right, certified frameworks such as PMBOK or PRINCE2 can be used.

The components of a planning cycle

Let’s now describe the various components of the planning cycle. Remember that the process is not linear.

At any point, the organization may choose to revisit an earlier step with new information or restart the process.

1 – Define objectives

Defining objectives is the most crucial part of the planning cycle.

While mission and vision statements provide some degree of clarity on where the company is headed, the planning cycle requires teams to develop specific goals using the SMART framework.

A SMART goal is any goal with a carefully planned, concise, and trackable objective. To be such a goal needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. Bringing structure and trackability to goal setting increases the chances goals will be achieved, and it helps align the organization around those goals.

2 – Develop premises

Premises are assumptions the team makes about how the project may be impacted in the future by different conditions.

These may be external (competitors, laws, innovation) or internal (management, employee training outcomes, or available budget), for example.

The SWOT analysis can be used to examine the organization’s current position and how it may be able to respond in various situations.


Whatever method is chosen, however, premises must be defined early so that managers can monitor conditions during project implementation. If assumptions prove incorrect, the plan may need to be revised.

3 – Evaluate alternatives

In business as in life, there is more than one way to achieve the same outcome.

A company wanting to reduce office-related expenditure by 8% could move to smaller premises, enable more employees to work remotely, or find a cheaper source of toner ink.

Project managers need to evaluate each alternative in terms of its implementation difficulty and chances of success.

They should do this by seeking out diverse perspectives or expertise.

There are several methods for evaluating a plan. These include the cost/benefit analysis, force field analysis, and the six thinking hats brainstorming method.

4 – Identify resources

What are the resources required to implement the plan? Which of these resources does the organization possess, and which must be sourced from elsewhere?

Resources may encompass technology, money, equipment, raw materials, or skills.

For each alternative from the previous step, the availability and cost of resources must be identified.

5 – Establish tasks

Tasks comprise the roadmap that enables the organization to move toward a desired future state.

They must be defined at all organizational levels and, to illustrate task completion sequences and interdependencies, many teams choose to use a Gantt chart.

6 – Determine tracking and evaluation methods

Tracking means project managers constantly monitor progress toward the intended outcomes.

They should have a detailed understanding of critical tasks as well as those most likely to encounter problems or cause project bottlenecks.

In the final evaluation, the team looks back on what it has learned. Could any aspect of planning be improved or refined?

Developing a standard post-implementation review process may also be useful if similar projects are likely to be undertaken in the future.

Above all, the review should determine whether the project solved a key problem and if so, if its benefits could potentially be enhanced.

Key takeaways:

  • The planning cycle enables organizations to successfully perform activities and achieve goals across projects of various sizes.
  • The planning cycle is most effective for small to medium-sized projects. For larger, more complex projects, formal frameworks such as PMBOK or PRINCE2 may be more effective.
  • The planning cycle has six iterative steps where results from the evaluation stage can be fed back into similar future projects. These steps include defining objectives, developing premises, evaluating alternatives, identifying resources, establishing tasks, and determining tracking and evaluation methods.

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