How to budget planning into digital projects

A collection of thoughts on project planning and especially the importance of budgeting the right amount of planning time into projects. #CatastropheAversion


I once drove from my apartment in Berkeley, California to visit a friend in Santa Barbara. I got there 10 hours later (it should have taken 5). The first city I ended up in was Stockton, which had an excellent Vietnamese restaurant but was basically in the wrong direction. Later in the trip, I passed through Santa Cruz, no more on the way to Santa Barbara than Stockton. You get the picture.

Map of California showing road trip route
Scientific diagram proving that not planning is crazy.

There were very accurate maps back then, made of a substance called “paper,” which never even runs out of batteries. The problem is that I didn’t want to consult them — to plan. That would have involved first figuring out where to buy a map, then actually going to buy it. Also, I would’ve needed to study the map and perhaps even call my friend to confirm the best route. All of this would’ve taken to at least 45 minutes, so naturally, I decided to go on instinct instead.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe

– Abe Lincoln

Planning is undervalued in digital initiatives

Aside from there being slightly less uproarious laughter from beach-goers when I attempted to surf the next day, what would have been different had I invested time in my planning the trip?

  • One more hour examining map — five fewer hours driving
  • $2 more on map — $50 less on gas
  • more  energy studying map — less energy being hopelessly lost
  • Etcetera

I couldn’t have imagined that in advance. In digital projects, it’s the same: lack of planning has more dire results than you can possibly imagine in advance. The “bigger” the project beset by under planning, the more exponentially catastrophic the consequences. And I put bigger in quotation marks because sometimes a wolf comes wrapped in sheep’s clothing — small projects and seemingly trivial features become design and development behemoths.

Overplanning counterpoint

Counterpoint – can you over plan? Can planning be a waste of time? Yes. In fact, overplanning is almost as dangerous as under planning, for two reasons, mostly the second:

  1. Wastes time and resources
  2. Stifles creative problem-solving

The more time a group of people invests in charting a course, the greater its inevitability in their minds, leaving no space for newer and maybe better ideas.  High-impact digital projects often involve an ever-changing team of individuals; your goal is to bring in the right people for the right pieces of the work. Make sure your plan isn’t so rigidly planned that new people can’t or won’t attempt to improve on it.

In sum, neither too little planning time, nor too much: the “sweet spot.” I don’t think anyone will dispute the inherent virtue of the sweet spot, but lots will argue the nature of it. It’s difficult to quantify regarding hours worked. While there is an art to this quantification that involves some degree of gut instinct and experience, my semi-scientific analysis of over 130 client projects over 17 years has yielded some numbers or at least some ratios of numbers.

How much time does planning take

An hour at the most would have been all the planning time needed to execute a 5-hour road trip. In terms of planning time versus total project budget (1-hour planning plus 5 hours driving), that’s about a 1:6 ratio for the planning budget. But does that proportion hold up for complex digital projects?

It always depends on the nature of the work, sure, but two trends have jumped out over time: first, planning without a solid strategy in place is risky. Second, the bigger the project, the higher the ideal ratio of planning budget to total project budget.

Total BudgetRatioPlanning Budget
8 hours (a day)12:1001 hour
40 hours (a week)20:1008 hours
160 hours (a month)20:10032 hours
480 hours (a quarter)25:100120 hours
960 hours (half year)30:100288 hours
1920 hours (one year)40:100768 hours


Abe Lincoln excepted, most people find it tough to accept some of these ratios. I find it hard myself and I’ve been working on digital projects since the late 90’s. But what’s even more difficult to accept is the cost associated with not budgeting planning in the first place — missed deadlines, missed opportunities, and lots of resources wasted. While these numbers may not be exact, I believe they are a good frame of reference. Go beneath them, and you lack understanding, specification, and direction; go over them, and you waste money, have too much specification, and become rigid in your thinking.

What is planning — just guessing?

By the way, Jason Fried has said: “Planning is guessing.” This is fascinating and worth considering.

The Oxford Dictionary of English says that a plan is a “detailed proposal for doing or achieving something” and that to guess is to “estimate or suppose something without sufficient information to be sure of being correct.”

So Jason is implying that “planning is guessing” because you can’t have sufficient information.” But I think you can if you accept the 1:5 planning to execution ratio as a baseline. Just like I could have found a gas station with a paper map, and I could have called my friend to consult him about it. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, even if you don’t end up sticking to it as your project develops.

There is a catch, though — planning doesn’t have to conclude before production work begins. While that’s the excepted Waterfall planning method, it’s not the way that Agile project management slates work. In Agile, work and planning co-evolve and iteratively drive a project without necessarily knowing exactly what the end product will look like. That means that for some projects that 20% of planning time may not be reached until near the end of the project.

But wherever and however planning time is spent, it’s worth it to target the planning budget sweet spot.

The planning budget sweet spot and why you should target it

No matter how big or small a budget or a set of strategic goals may be, there is a project budget sweet spot for digital projects: 160 – 480 hours.

The sweet spot is the range at which the ratio of planning hours to execution hours remains somewhat reasonable (1:5) yet also corresponds to a significant amount of work.

Beyond this range, planning becomes incredibly complicated and eats up the budget; before this range, your can’t necessarily accomplish much. No matter how big or small a budget or a set of strategic goals may be, there is a project budget sweet spot for digital projects: 160 – 480 hours.

That 160 – 480 range is inclusive of planning and execution phases and any other kind of work that comprises the project, from content production to creative design, to engineering and quality assurance testing.

Break a big project into bite-sized ones

BTW, if what you want to achieve doesn’t fit that range, break your project into smaller, independent projects that do. The sweet spot doesn’t apply to the contract level, which might call for thousands or tens of thousands of hours. But it does apply to how you organize project work that proceeds from a contract. In Agile development, work on a project is broken into cycles called “sprints”; a 160-hour budget might fit in nicely into one of them. A 480-hour might fit nicely into three of them.

Also, a contract can be delivered on by breaking work out into multiple smaller projects that are executed simultaneously and rolled up into a master project. In this way, large projects can be delivered without incurring that frustrating and expensively high ratio of planning time, where planning happens for months and months before anything is built and eats up 40% or 50% of the total budget.

Moving faster with the right planning budget

Most web presences should be redesigned, strategically, creatively, and functionally, every 2.5 years.

Our culture and our economies have entered a period of rapid change. Markets change, customers change, and companies have to as well. Show me a website that is over three years old, and I’ll show you missed opportunities. Most web presences should be redesigned, strategically, creatively, and functionally, every 2.5 years. By positioning your digital projects into the sweet spot of 160 to 480 hours, you’ve got not only a high-ROI ratio of planning to execution but a realistic scope of work that allows for rapid, iterative change.

Thinking ahead: If you implement this approach, you’ll be EBITDA-profitable by 2089!