Simplify Your Accounting Firm Work: How to Plan a Project

How to plan a project? Really?

Like there aren’t dozens of methods, hundreds of project types, and an infinite number of variables in project management. Before we begin tackling such massive subject matter, it’s necessary to give it definition. 

First, we’re talking about projects that accountants undertake, particularly accounting firm owners and partners. No life hacks or car maintenance or home improvement projects to cover here. Instead, it’s things like:

  • Adding a new service to your firm’s roster
  • Improving your overall workflow, to better manage tasks
  • Implementing a new software tool
  • Overhauling your onboarding process

The list goes on. 

Now that we have a particular vein, it’s time to tackle the “how to plan a project” problem — from the accounting perspective.

Why Project Planning is Important

Look, everyone knows that goals and objectives are necessary to move forward in our lives and careers. Most of us have ideas of where we’re headed, but it’s subdividing and breaking those overarching goals down into projects that move the needle.

Some are naturally inclined to superbly organize their lofty dreams in a way that turns them into a reality (Elon, we’re looking at you).

For the rest of us, even the planning takes work, the right tools, and a keen eye on capacity. For accounting firms, in particular, planning is the only way to see desired momentum. 

Here’s an example to highlight the importance of project planning:

Goal: 

  • Growth (both external and internal). Most firms we talk to want to increase the number of clients and the size of their team in a sustainable way.

Potential projects:

  • Evaluate internal processes to reduce bottlenecks, better utilize resources/staff, and standardize your workflow
  • Develop marketing and sales strategies for finding and closing qualified leads
  • Improve relationships with current clients in a way that adds value (for them) and increases revenue (for your firm)

This is a precise moment — after you’ve identified the goal and projects needed to achieve it, yet before you’ve begun work on the first Tesla. No. Rocket? No. Underground train system? Nope. (The guy has one serious to-do list.)

Accounting firm project. That’s the one.

Unfortunately, this moment is where many of us get stuck. For practice owners, project derailment isn’t caused by a lack of want, but a few common opportunities.

3 Things that Derail Projects

  • Ideas, but no plan: Ok. Think beyond what you want (the goal) and even your knowledge of how to get there (the projects). Self-reflect and ask yourself — what am I actively, right now doing to achieve those things?
  • Not using a PM tool: Project management tools help the planning phase and track progress on the way to your goal.  
  • Lack of team availability: You have a plan and a tool, but do you have the people to achieve it? It’s the ultimate chicken/egg scenario, for firms. The answer comes down to managing and tracking capacity, which we cover here, in detail.

How to Plan a Project (5 Accounting Specific Steps)

Step One: Estimate Capacity

"Sometimes you gotta go back to actually move forward, and I don’t mean going back to reminisce, or chase ghosts. I mean going back to see where you came from, where you've been, how you got here and see where you’re going.” — Matthew McConaughey, Buick Commercial

The workflow you have now likely won’t work when you get where you’re headed (via goals and projects). A common issue when firms grow is capacity. It rears its head in different ways:

  • Overworked, burned out staff
  • Overworked, burned out owners
  • Deliverables or work falling through the cracks
  • Not enough margin to hire, even though you’re busy

Tracking productivity, managing the workload, and documenting those processes help you determine capacity. The easiest way to estimate how much time is open for projects is to use a tool, like the one we recently added to Jetpack Workflow!

Note: Knowing specific amounts of time and the individuals who’ll have it will come in handy starting in step three.

Step Two: List Out Everything

As discussed, you have your goals and a decent idea of the big projects it’ll take to accomplish those objectives. Now, it’s time to really dig into the granular and list out specific steps/tasks in those projects.

One of the projects mentioned above was to “Improve relationships with current clients in a way that adds value (for them) and increases revenue (for your firm).” 

Potential associated tasks with this project include:

  • Identify your best clients (who’s quick to respond and takes your advice)
  • What’s your best-selling service?
  • Choose a service(s) that flows well with that service? (e.g. Tax planning is a great upsell if tax prep is your bread and butter)
  • Develop marketing materials (put together an email sequence, a guide that explains the benefits of tax planning, lots of sub-tasks here)
  • Set a task in your workflow tool for accountants to ask tax clients about tax planning for next year and remind them to offer the marketing materials 
  • Determine team members who’ll handle tax planning sessions
  • Create a “tax planning client” service template, to list all of the individual tasks for the new service

Like we mentioned, there are many projects, methods, and individual tasks. But hopefully, this gets your creative juices flowing.

Step Three: Estimate Time (per task or group of like tasks)

The most arbitrary entry on the list, yet still important. You’re not setting an egg timer here, but a mini goal. Estimate to the best of your ability, work toward completing the task, and see where you land. 

Here are a few examples, using the tasks from step two:

  • Identify your best clients and the most common service they employ — 8 hours
  • Choose a service(s) that flows well with that service — 30 minutes to an hour, including discussing it with some of your team/colleagues
  • Develop marketing materials — 3-6 weeks, after you list all of the sub-tasks involved here and find some writers/marketers to help you out

Note: After individual times are assigned (and capacity is known), you’re able to assign an estimate on the total project. So the “Launch Tax Planning Upsell Initiative” should be up and running in 8-10 weeks. Make sense?

Step Four: Organize Importance

If you’re a logical person, like an accountant, you’ve likely listed your tasks in a time-based order. From the most logical starting point, to the most likely end point. However, if you wait to begin setting up the process until your marketing materials are in, it’ll dramatically slow you down.

Here’s a quick method to use, instead.

Look at each item and ask yourself, “What is needed before we get started on this task on the list?”

Potential answers:

  • Nothing, and no other tasks hinge upon it
  • Nothing, and other tasks on the list DO hinge upon this one being complete
  • Something else needs to be done, first

Those tasks that can begin and affect other tasks should be given top priority. And if you can manage, do some other “nothing” tasks that don’t necessarily have things waiting. Use the time estimates, too. 

This method and some of that logic should create the most timely order for your project.

Step Five: Do It

It’s here you officially step out of the “planning” phase. The plan shows what you can do (capacity), what to do (tasks), and the importance of each item. Now you need the motivation to get moving.

For that, head to a page full of “do it” memes and gifs. Here’s one of our favorites:

Project Planning Made Easier with Workflow Software

Workflow software is a tool that helps you create tasks, figure out timing, manage capacity, and track the progress of all in-progress projects. And not just the things you hope to accomplish, but those things you do each and every day. 

Want to see how it works?

Try Jetpack Workflow for free for 14 days and start seeing your projects go from “planning” to “done.” 

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