How to avoid poor construction project planning


From collapsing structures to skyrocketing budgets, poor construction project planning can turn dreams into nightmares. In this article, we highlight the keys to unlocking successful project delivery.

Customer demands, changing regulations and new technology are all making construction projects more complex. Whether you are building a hospital or a family home, there are real risks that the project will fail to deliver in terms of quality, practicality, time or budget.

While the need for competent organisation and planning has never been greater, poor project management continues to be the industry’s problem that never goes away.

Why is construction project planning important?

The Association for Project Management (APM) defines a project as: “A unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits. A project is usually deemed to be a success if it achieves the objectives according to their acceptance criteria, within an agreed timescale and budget.”

Every building project is unique in terms of its design, specification, construction methods, site conditions and budget. The process of turning an idea into a physical structure will always involve an element of uncertainty, which is why planning is so important. 

Having a comprehensive plan from day one sets the tone for the project, outlining the responsibilities and deliverables to successfully complete the task. This involves dividing the work into component activities such as defining targets and responsibilities, allocating resources, delegating tasks, preparing charts, coordinating, procuring resources, budgeting, preventing wastage, motivating participants, providing a suitable climate, and controlling and monitoring performance.

How do you define project success?

The ultimate definition of success will depend on the end client’s expectations, but typical objectives are time, budget and quality. However, while one area might have over-delivered, another area could have failed leading to unhappy stakeholders.

So how do you define success?

According to the RICS guidance note Lessons learned (1st edition, April 2016) “the definition of success frames the context in which decisions are made”. So if there is no clear idea of what success looks like, the decisions being made could be wrong which would result in project failure.

RICS suggests some fundamental steps for project managers:

  • Traditional factors of time, cost and quality are easy to measure, but might not reflect every stakeholder’s interests
  • If the above factors are satisfied, the project could still be deemed a failure due to safety and environmental issues during construction, or if the building is not a sustainable asset.
  • While a project manager’s participation ends at completion, they must allow for the long-term goals of the end client.
  • While stakeholder engagement may produce conflicting priorities, a comprehensive consultation process is always required.
  • Successful construction project planning, may not result in project success.

The key elements for project success

Managing a successful project involves several critical components. Here is a concise summary of these factors:

Project Schedule: It’s essential to create a comprehensive schedule, defining tasks, dependencies, durations, and resources. This plan should consider milestones and include buffers for contingencies. Utilise methods like the Critical Path Method (CPM) and the Programme Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) to construct effective schedules.

Budget and Cost Estimates: Financial resources must be accurately estimated for successful project completion. Key elements include thorough project scope, market research, historical data, collaborative estimation, and contingency planning. Sound financial planning and resource allocation ensure project delivery within budget.

Cost Control: Efficiently tracking and managing expenses helps adhere to approved budgets. Regular cost tracking, establishing a cost baseline, variance analysis, and change control processes are crucial for maintaining cost control.

Scope Definition: Clearly defining project objectives and scope prevents inefficiencies and delays. Efficient change control, stakeholder management, and project monitoring strategies are critical to addressing scope creep.

Time Management: Conducting feasibility studies and site assessments ensures accurate project information, enabling clear objective definitions and informed decision-making.

Change Management: Managing change is a critical aspect of project management, ensuring alignment of the project with the agreed scope and objectives.

Risk Management: Strategic risk management identifies, assesses, and manages risks, focusing on crucial aspects of the organisation.

Resource Management: Efficient resource planning, allocation, and optimisation significantly impact project performance. Training and development of staff can also improve project outcomes.

Quality Control and Assurance: Projects require robust quality planning, control, inspections, data analysis, and corrective actions. Quality assurance measures like audits, process improvement, documentation, continuous monitoring, and stakeholder feedback ensure compliance with established guidelines.

Procurement Strategies: Efficient procurement and contractor selection processes are essential for sourcing necessary goods and services.

Communication: A tailored communication strategy promotes efficient stakeholder engagement, enhancing project progress.

Legal and Contractual Risks: Potential liabilities arising from non-compliance with laws, regulations, or contracts need proactive management to prevent financial penalties and reputational damage.

Project Complexity: Early project planning should account for potential complexity growth, ensuring the project’s successful execution.

Governance: Clients should take ownership of projects or appoint a responsible individual to ensure smooth decision-making.

Budget Errors: Accurate costing and regular budget monitoring prevent severe financial implications.

Approvals: Efficiently obtaining necessary approvals keeps the project moving, ensuring it stays on track and within budget.

Documentation: Storing all information securely and accessibly, preferably in the cloud, ensures data safety and ease of access.

The consequences of poor construction project planning

All of the above have a role to play in building trust between a project planner and the client. Poor reporting or late responses to queries can all erode trust and endanger the success of the project. Here are some of the other consequences of poor construction project planning.

Reduced stakeholder support: a lack of clear objectives can lead to stakeholders failing to get behind the project. Full understanding is essential if they are to push things forward.

Inaccurate budget and timeline: resources and time are essential for any project, so things can quickly get out of control if these areas are not crystal clear. Extra resources to meet a deadline can incur more cost, as can extending a deadline. These issues could have been avoided with proper planning.

Controlling the scope: while an amount of scope change can be expected, too much can start to cause serious problems. Deciding an overall scope early in the process can help to reduce the amount of chopping and changing as the project develops.

How to avoid project failure

While there is no perfect project recipe, there are a few key ingredients you can add to provide a better chance of a successful outcome. 

Include the customer from day one and continually update them as things change and develop, so that the necessary adjustments can be made.

As we have mentioned, clear accountability for measured results is required, as well as consistent processes for planning and executing tasks. Keep one eye on the overall value of a project, not just the small technical details.

Manage and motivate the team to produce optimal performance, including providing the tools and techniques required to deliver successful outcomes.

The role of a quantity surveyor in project planning

Essentially, a quantity surveyor monitors and manages the costs associated with planning a construction project. Working with the design team, quantity surveyors will keep everyone updated on budget estimates, as well as spotting risks and opportunities for value engineering.

Whether a quantity surveyor is working directly for the client or through an architect, they need to be at the centre of the design process. They offer independent thinking and industry expertise so the project provides both quality and best value.

Quantity surveyors require the technical skills and knowledge to support the client through the project planning phase, including benchmarking pricing and contract law. As well as the technical skills, quantity surveyors need to have the soft skills to understand a client’s attitude, from flexible to “no surprises”.

When it comes to project planning, quantity surveyors use their experience to think one step ahead to anticipate potential problems. The best quantity surveyors are not just technically efficient, they are also project leaders who can challenge decisions and communicate clearly with all clients.

In short, quantity surveyors should act as trusted partners of the client, from the first day through to settling the final account.