Mindmapping for project planning
You can't start a project without thinking, "What do I do first?" So you're planning already! But don't relax yet.
Even with small projects you need to know what the project aims to do, how you'll know if you've finished (and been successful, what the scope of the project will be, what resources it will be able to use, and who will be involved, but that's just the beginning. Next, you must decide what has to be done, when, by whom and when it must be finished.
Start a mindmap if you haven't already. Think about what the project aims to produce, what it covers, what you will need to finish it and then draft the first ideas for a timetable:
Scope may be the trickiest. It should mention what's included, but it's a good idea to try to write what is not included as well. No, not trivial exclusions ("this project will exclude an attempt to set up a moon-base"). What's hard, is to catch as many as you can of the exclusions that other players in the project might expect to be included.
You may not have decided much of what you write about aims, scope and resources yourself -- maybe your boss told you -- but whether you define them and then go seeking agreement, or they are handed down, make sure they have been thought through, written down and circulated. Either way if you are managing the project, the next part is down to you. And this is where the mindmap gets really useful.
Mind mapping encourages structured capture of unstructured thoughts. You could do some of this with a checklist, but a mindmap lets you move quickly, skip from one area to another when you foresee consequences there, and remain open and unconstrained when planning. There will be a time for formal and detailed planning, but this is not it -- you need a broad view and the mindmap approach gives that.
Next, develop the mindmap to a more detailed level. You have aims, now you need a statement of requirements, and an informal agreement with the sponsors of the project, or more likely a formal agreement, and even a legal contract in some cases. Depending on how formal your sponsors are, there may be penalties to agree at this stage and you will need to consider contingencies in cases of failure to obtain all the resources or meet certain requirements -- delivery dates especially.
The problem with linear planning is clear, now. Here the description, as is the nature of prose, is linear, but at this point in the project planning, there will actually be movement on many fronts -- timetable planning; consideration of constraints; negotiation about completion dates and penalties; factoring in the need for approvals and whether these will be available in a timely manner; and considering internal controls imposed by, say, quality processes or regulatory requirements, if these apply.
Such multiple and parallel activities are better supported by a mindmap than a linear outline, a checklist or a purely text-based planning document.
This mindmap continues to grow though the planning process as more and more detail is filled in, and detailed budgeting, formal timetable preparations and resource allocation get under way.
Taking regular snapshots of the mindmap and keeping these intermediate stages is a good idea. It can help with future projects. Once you have found the right form of project-planning mindmap for your work, you will be able to use its general structure for project after project, and tune it as your projects grow.