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My step-by-step guide to review your project progress and plan for the year ahead

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

January. I don’t know about you, but I usually find the first few weeks back in the office are some of the most enjoyable of my year. All the Christmas deadlines are out of the way, there’s no mass of emails awaiting your inbox and you’ve come back from a (welcome) break refreshed and revived. Perhaps I tend feel this way because I’m always back in the office the day it opens, those who typically take longer Christmas breaks may hate January - so bear with me!

Regardless of when you return to work, I always find January a rewarding time because its a time to reset, a time for renewal. Which means that there’s space in my calendar to think, reflect and plan. I always start a new work plan in January whether it’s a personal work plan, or a team one but, it’s also important to learn from the year just gone in order to improve your approach and adapt your management.

In this blog, I walk you through a few quick exercises to help you to first review your working year and then plan the twelve months ahead.


How did your 2020 go? Credit; Unsplash/Isaac Smith

Start as you mean to go on

First of all you need to get yourself into the right mindset. Effective reviewing requires critical reflection of your performance and for some people this is easier than others. If you know this is a weakness, perhaps enlist the help of a team member or, do the entire process with your team (which is my preference anyway).

Just remember throughout this process to take an unbiased approach to your evaluation and remember nothing ever goes to plan!

I would also recommend using your project plan throughout this process, so make sre you have it to hand. This enables you to compare your progress to your original intentions and makes reviewing your progress a lot easier. That said, don't worry if you don't have one, you can always start today, by following the process outlined below.

Take a look back. Credit; Unsplash/Vincent van Zalinge

What were your key actions this year?

Take ten minutes now to think about the last 12 months of your project – what happened? Write down what you and your team actually did in 2020 in a bulleted list. Try and be as thorough as possible.

Reflect on where you are

Once you’ve got a list of everything you and your project team did in 2020, you can take time to reflect on how well each activity worked (or not). Mark an asterisk against any activity in your list that worked well, and circle those that really could have gone better. Try and be honest and objective with yourself, as this will help you make the next phase of the project better.

What worked really well last year? Credit; Unsplash/Natalie Pedigo

Now, I’d advise sketching out two of columns; one titled ‘helped’, one titled ‘hindered’. For each of the asterisked and circled activities respectively, write down some thoughts about what helped and what hindered your delivery, and crucially add ‘why’ that was the case. Again, be honest with yourself, these notes can remain confidential so they should be true to life, even if it’s difficult to admit and commit to paper (or screen!).

Learn from the past

‘Learning’ is a current conservation buzzword, but it is important as it helps to improve our delivery. It’s key that we continue learning as a team to improve upon our performance year on year.

So, looking again at your reflections columns, what did you learn that you hadn’t thought of before? Write down what you learned in bullet points. Is there anything that increased your success? Or something that was a problem? Did new risks or questions arise? Or indeed, was anything that you already suspected confirmed? Did you involve new key groups or people that were game-changing?

Taking the time to think about what you’ve learned and actually writing down makes it so much easier to see the progress you’ve made from this point last year. You should give yourself (at least) a full ten minutes to think these through what you've learned (even if you’re drawing blanks) because these questions are the most revealing and they generally don't spring to mind straight away. Jot down any new insights and questions - no matter how obvious they are, or how unsure you are about them (you can always discard them later).

Learning from a project comes before predicting ways ahead. Credit; Unsplash/specphotops

Future plans

The last step is to integrate all your notes from the above to shed light on your planned work for the year ahead. Looking again at your learning from the past year, think to yourself how you could ensure these new lessons are applied in your day-to-day practice. Is there anything you need to adapt, or even stop doing? Is there something you should continue doing, or you’d like to try?

Write these down as bullet points and crucially, feed them into your work planning for 2021. Do this either explicitly by adding them as targets or activities in upcoming project plans or, integrate them into your processes by adapting or creating relevant documents or frameworks.

What next?

I hope the above has given you the opportunity to reflect on your achievements in 2020, and also develop new ideas and insights for your work in the year ahead.

There is however a danger that without a little extra work all of this will simply stay in your own head – definitely a project risk! Therefore I would suggest now might be a good time to take your new ideas and learning to develop a new annual project plan, which I outline below.


Fill in the blanks. Credit; Unsplash/

Your 2021 Plan

For absolute beginners, as a first step, you might want to try sketching out a mini project plan in your notebook over the next 20 minutes. The below paragraphs describe how to do this very simply (for a more in depth guide, you can find various articles in my blog)..

Define your vision

To do this, imagine your own picture of what your project looks like in 5 years’ time. Either draw this down or start writing down key words. Use your drawing or keywords to write down what the situation looks like in five years' time. This is your ‘vision’, or the change you want to make. And it’s essential that you do not use conservation jargon!

You may want to start your sentence with the phrase: "By January 2026...". It’s important that you limit your vision to a single sentence, which clearly outlines what your project will look like by January 2026.

Create your own luck. Credit; Unsplash/jan huber

Set your outcomes

After that, simply write down the steps you will take towards this vision. These are your outcomes or objectives (the terminology you use doesn’t matter) for the coming year – the things you will have achieved by December 2021. The key is to define a set of outcomes that will contribute (but not entirely achieve) your project vision.

That is, roughly three concise statements of what you are trying to achieve. For example, reduce poaching of unicorns by 20% in Imaginary National Park by December 2021. If you are familiar with SMART, apply this to your outcomes. I would recommend an absolute maximum of five outcomes, otherwise your work will become unwieldy no matter how much funding you have.

Decide your activities

For each of your outcomes, review them to make sure they are achievable by the end of the year. Your next step is to brainstorm the day-to-day tasks that will enable you to achieve each of these. First, brainstorm all possible tasks and then decide those which you’d like to focus on this year. Use your bulleted list from the review process to guide you - have you included all of your recommendations? List your completed list of activities under the relevant outcomes.

Commit your plan to paper. Credit; Vision Wild

Create a work plan

Finally, you need to double-check that your activities are all feasible with the resources you have. The best way to do this is to create a work plan in order to assign team members to each activity and create your budget. If it all your planned activities look too much for your staff to deliver (or cost too much) – cut the lower priority activities.

The final work plan should be reviewed and agreed with the team. All of the team should have access to the work plan at any time. By creating a shared work plan you're more able to share your learning, delegate responsibility throughout your team and check progress which should be reviewed annually. Click here to download (the middle box on the page) my free basic work plan template to get you started.

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