Every project should begin with a plan, but not every project manager leverages planning software. Gartner classifies 87% of organizations as having low business intelligence (BI) and analytics maturity, meaning they rely primarily on manual spreadsheets and data extracts. The result is far-reaching, including limited cross-team collaboration, bottlenecks, and poor resource utilization.
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This dependence on manual tools may be due to an overwhelming number of diverse planning software options, features, and capabilities. Where do you even begin to mature with software that needs to meet the needs of multiple types of planning? Can you afford to continue with the status quo – relying on spreadsheets, manual efforts, and homegrown tools?
For those involved in the planning process, it can seem like planning is all you do. Planning goes beyond individual projects to include financial planning, strategic planning, capacity planning, and so much more across portfolios and the enterprise. With so much planning (and different planning cadences to determine the plans), it’s a wonder anything ever gets done.
Planning is critical to establish objectives and goals along the path forward, but it can be labor-intensive and still result in questionable insights. To ease planning and improve reliability, leading organizations use planning software that automates, integrates, analyzes, and presents actionable data so leaders can make data-driven decisions with confidence.
What is Planning Software?
Planning software can be a powerful tool to organize projects and resources into phases and tasks with attainable deadlines – all in one place. Instead of alternating between systems and manually extracting data, you can integrate the software into existing business systems to automate data flow and Business Intelligence (BI).
Organizations rely on data within planning software to inform decisions during planning meetings. In many cases, planning frequency varies across organizations. Transitioning from annual planning to continuous planning for greater business agility vastly improves bridging the gap between departments and internal teams.
Different Types of Planning Software
Annual planning brings together strategic and operational plans outlining specific goals, objectives, activities, and roles for particular programs within a specific timeframe (typically one year). Leaders focus on:
- Making decisions about which set of programs to fund in the coming year
- Using investment and capacity planning to rank, prioritize, and make trade-off decisions within program budgets
- Setting budgets across all programs
- Assessing resource capacity required for programs and projects
The problem with annual planning is that it is rigid and makes it a challenge to have the agility needed to adapt to change or disruptions. CIO says, “The way to stay nimble is to make strategic planning a continuous process that connects your vision to a roadmap for execution and delivery. Without a living strategy, you can go very fast in the wrong direction.”
Spreadsheets are most commonly used in place of annual planning software across organizations of all sizes.
Continuous planning is an ongoing approach to planning that allows businesses to adapt the plan based on change, feedback, and current influences. With continuous planning, organizations can achieve agility and are better able to:
- Establish, prioritize, and revisit strategies
- Analyze and prioritize current demand
- Evaluate resource capacity and budgets
- Prioritize, allocate, and shift investments to balance resources
- Collaborate with stakeholders
Unfortunately, inflexible, static spreadsheets break down when attempting continuous planning and fail to adapt as plans evolve. They are one-dimensional and offer no automated way to assess scenarios for analysis. The best planning software alternatives offer purpose-built capabilities such as scenario planning and what-if analysis that allow you to see the opportunities and assess all angles to better maximize your planning process.
Project planning defines the scope, risks, and resources it will take to deliver a project (people, technology, dollars, time). It includes a work breakdown structure, project tracking, reporting, resource management, and capacity planning.
Project planning software should help your organization embrace new ways of working as you align strategic objectives to outcomes, with less emphasis on the methodology by which the work is executed. Look for software that focuses on project budgeting with prioritization capabilities, scenario planning, resource planning, and financial forecasting.
Project planning software should simplify project, resource, and capacity planning. Choose software that provides rich analytics and reporting features to help users prioritize and deliver high-value work.
With so many software options, it can be challenging to know which features are essential. The best software delivers the right level of features and will scale as your company grows or needs change. A few key features to consider are:
- Gantt chart tools
- Stakeholder and team collaboration tools
- Resource and capacity planning tools
- Workflow management with Kanban or other task boards
- Requirements management
- Schedule builder
- Analytics and reporting tools
- Budget management and funding planning
- File sharing and integrations with document management solutions
Portfolio planning software takes a broader view, prioritizing projects based on what matters most to achieve business outcomes that drive value faster. By looking at the portfolio as a sum of its parts versus individual projects, you can quickly adjust funding as priorities change to deliver beneficial products, services, and customer experiences more consistently.
Funding decisions are now concentrated on programs, epics, or value streams. Planning software helps users identify programs with the highest potential value so you can prioritize resource capacity and larger investments based on your measure of return. Likewise, when change and disruption occur, it helps to create and compare alternative scenarios in order to understand trade-offs and constraints that might impact adjustments to the plan.
As your organization’s agility advances to do more, faster, teams will inevitably organize around internal products. This shifts the portfolio focus so funding is aimed at products, applications, or capabilities. Long-term programs switch to shorter epics that deliver incremental outcomes.
Portfolio planning software can also pivot funding focus from specific investments or tactics to desired outcomes in the form of value streams. Each value stream receives the appropriate level of funding based on its priority ranking.
Key portfolio planning features to consider are:
- Program prioritization, planning and management
- Portfolio planning and analysis
- Financial and capital planning
- Investment and capacity planning
- Demand management tools
- Predictive portfolio analysis
- “What-If” scenario planning
- Strategic roadmapping
- Dependency management
- Top-down timeframes and financials, adjustable based on bottom-up progress and forecasts
- Executive dashboards with interactive visualizations and analysis
No matter which product you choose, it should provide real-time accessibility – cloud-based, easy to use, and is able to seamlessly integrate with other business systems. It must facilitate stakeholder collaboration as the trusted source for all program, portfolio, and project information.
What are Benefits of Planning Software?
Planning software is the basis for sound decision-making. Leaders need to know where their budget stands – at the strategy level or the program level. Different types of reports provide unique views into what each user finds valuable.
Executive line of site and visibility
Executives and stakeholders need insight into the relationships between business strategy, portfolios, projects, and resources to inform decisions that move the business forward, especially during times of change. In fact, the most effective planning software enables organizations to thrive during change because decision-makers always have the latest data at their fingertips.
CIO says data supports three universal executive drivers: increase revenue, manage costs, and manage risk. Data quality matters in order to support these drivers – therefore, combining software with data governance should be a priority in order to reduce reporting or analysis errors. Executives must be able to trust the data, and a dedicated planning software solution will provide significantly higher data quality.
Planning software enables organizations to ensure the portfolio aligns with strategy as priorities shift and reallocate resources based on availability. With an understanding of dependencies and the impact of change, leaders can re-prioritize and plan for new and existing work as they keep an eye on future demand.
Elements needed to make investment and delivery decisions
All stakeholders need access to required insights to continuously plan, deliver outcomes that contribute to profitability, and drive strategic success. Comprehensive analytics with customizable dashboards and reports provide real-time visibility, which always supports better decision-making.
Reports embedded within planning software provide executives with a view into the current state of the portfolio. Project managers can discover trends and outliers as they explore data-driven programs. Project managers can focus on daily project health, and resource managers can see what their people are working on to increase utilization.
Types of reports and functions to look for:
- Configurable reports using tools like MicrosoftⓇ Power BI and ExcelⓇ – provide deeper insights and support more impactful decision-making with self-service analysis to bring data alive across the enterprise – generate ad-hoc analysis and custom reporting so you can slice, dice, drill down, and roll up
- Out-of-the-box analytics – offers immediate access to highly configurable, best practice reports
- Portfolio manager’s view – offers quick insight into the health and status of any portfolio
- Project actuals versus plan – provides a snapshot of project performance
- Predefined tables – speed report generation using common, standard planning and budgeting tables
- Customized tables – specify metrics, filters, and structure to fit business use case
- Configurable tables and charts – create data visualizations to quickly identify trends, patterns, and outliers
Risk identification and evaluation
One of the most beneficial aspects of planning software is the ability to identify risks and evaluate their impact on resources. The ability to clearly see dependencies and model what-if scenarios can save you significant time and money, helping you kill projects earlier, shift strategies or investment priorities faster, make wiser trade-off decisions, and more accurately plan for the future.
When you can prioritize technology initiatives based on a standardized scoring system, you can identify and prioritize low-risk, high-reward projects more effectively. Planning software can help your organization focus on the right efforts as you plan and execute projects to achieve strategic initiatives.
When to Use Planning Software
Planning software is essential to manage demand, but not all demand is within the portfolio. Out-of-portfolio demand often causes the most significant disruption to the strategic plan, particularly for organizations that rely on annual planning. Planning software is ideal in both scenarios, and enables you to:
- Create scenarios to weigh trade-offs and impacts when making decisions
- Create an easy process while ensuring all demand is represented
- Understand the total amount of work not being scrutinized, even if the investment does not need approval
- Focus on the small number of questionable investments rather than viewing any and all (potentially hundreds) investments
- Create different processes for different types of work
Planning Scenario Example
Let’s say your organization is struggling to proactively respond to shifting market demands, an all-too-common scenario. The PMO is IT-centric but recognizes the importance of transitioning to an Enterprise PMO (EPMO) to evolve with your growing organization.
This new EPMO wants to increase their value to the business by shifting from traditional processes to lean and agile processes that support simplicity and flexibility in how work is done across the enterprise. Instead of being a rule or process enforcer, they strive to be an enabler to empower teams deliver better and faster.
An investment in planning software is a leap forward from disconnected systems and manual processes. By using a software solution, the EPMO can integrate strategy and planning in a single solution.
Now, investment capacity planning within project portfolio management works in lockstep with capability and technology management, enabling the enterprise architecture team to confidently define outcomes for the following year.
Planning software soon becomes a corporate asset, automatically bringing visibility into the prioritization process, identifying risks, and surfacing the right projects and resources. Instead of static spreadsheets that only provide a snapshot in time, investment and capacity planning provides executives with real-time prioritization, resources, capacity, and financial data.
Executives are able to manage and plan their strategic portfolio with less effort and time. The architecture team relies on Enterprise Architecture as its single repository for the entire IT asset inventory, using it to compare multiple IT transformation scenarios and assess the impact on the IT portfolio as they plan.
Of course, this is just one of the countless scenarios where planning software not only offers enterprise benefits, but completely transforms how organizations operate, adapt, and deliver on strategy.
Planning is a critical phase of any strategy and organizations need an efficient way to empower decision-makers across the enterprise with reliable data. Disconnected systems and manual spreadsheets have inherent limitations that waste resources, stunt collaboration, impede delivery, and inhibit growth potential.
Within modern portfolio planning comes financial planning, annual planning, strategic planning, capacity planning, roadmapping, and more. Your current planning efforts may be overwhelming and tedious, especially if you rely on spreadsheets and disconnected systems. With the right planning software connected to work execution, you are able to gain a complete picture of actual progress, results, and delivery against the plan. Your organization can be more organized and accelerate insight into priorities, risks, and opportunities.
The ultimate goal of planning software isn’t to add another piece of technology to your stack. Instead, it’s to help your organization connect the dots across strategy to delivery and effectively create living, dynamic plans that adapt to change.