How to Build a Powerful Deliverable Strategy from Scratch

Tracy Brinkerhoff

What is a deliverable?

What do the construction of a new skyscraper and the implementation of a new software system have in common?

Both are complex projects, likely broken down into smaller phases with specific deadlines, that measure project completeness with deliverables.

In the project management world, a deliverable is defined as a “measurable, tangible, verifiable outcome, result, or item that must be produced to complete a project milestone.”

There are as many versions of deliverables as there are types of projects that require project management. For example, a deliverable may come in the form of:

  • A poster
  • A PowerPoint deck
  • A code release
  • A wireframe
  • A blueprint

Why are deliverables important?

A well-constructed project plan is the backbone of a successful project. Deliverables guide the development and maintenance of that project plan.

Think of deliverables as a form of project management currency. No matter how much ‘activity’ is completed by you and your team members, until a deliverable is produced and accepted by your client, you may not get paid!

That’s why deliverables should be the focal point of a project or a project phase. All planned activities should be directly tied to the production of a deliverable. Any project activity that does not directly contribute to the production of a high-quality deliverable should be restructured or removed from the project plan.

Types of deliverables

When managing a complex project, you will likely have more than one deliverable defined. There may be recurring deliverables, such as a weekly status report or a risk log, that are delivered to the client at regular intervals. You may also have interim deliverables that will act as inputs for the development of your final deliverable.

One example of an interim deliverable is a blueprint. As an interim deliverable, it must be completed to build to your final deliverable, a house.

In technology, the same concept exists, only the blueprint is usually called a wireframe. A wireframe is an interim deliverable that is submitted, approved, and then used to build the final software product.

Example deliverables by project phase

The Project Management Institute divides projects into 5 phases: initiation, planning, execution, performance/monitoring, and closure.

Across all industries, there are a number of standard deliverables associated with each project phase. Depending on the client and project at hand, you may choose to exclude some of the below deliverables or modify them to fit the needs of your project.

  • Initiation: Project Charter, Project Kickoff Deck
  • Planning: Key Stakeholder List, Project Plan, Risk Log, Communication Plan, Key Performance Indicator Definitions, Work Breakdown Structure
  • Execution: Work Products (will vary by industry)
  • Performance/Monitoring: Status Report(s), Change Requests, Project Plan Updates, Risk Identification/Mitigation
  • Closure: Project Overview Presentation, Transition Plan, Project Retrospective

Example deliverables by industry

Industry-specific deliverables will typically be developed during the ‘execution’ phase of a project. Examples of industry-specific deliverables include:

  • Advertising/Marketing: Brand Strategy Report, Collateral (physical or digital), Website/Social Media Copy, Campaign Definition/Metrics, Sales Literature
  • Technology/Software: Requirement Documents, Technical/Functional Specifications, Wireframes/Mockups, User Journeys, Executable Code, Test Scripts, Test Results
  • Construction/Engineering: Blueprints, Design Drawings, Completed Projects/Products (i.e., commercial/residential building), Engineering Report, Site Survey
  • Strategy & Operations: Business Cases, Business Plans, Competitor Analysis, Process Flow Documentation, Future State Recommendations

Crafting your deliverable strategy

Thoughtfully crafting a deliverable strategy is a critical element of project management success.

Why? Because client satisfaction (and repeat business!) often depend heavily on meeting objectives and deadlines. A thoughtful deliverable strategy ensures that client objectives are reliably fulfilled within the agreed-upon deadlines.

Although your deliverable strategy can overlap with your project plan, the two are not synonymous. In fact, developing a project plan should be a much easier exercise if your deliverable strategy is fully built out!

Crafting your deliverable strategy includes undertaking the following activities:

  • Definition
  • Deconstruction
  • Assignment
  • Progress Tracking
  • Quality Review

You are likely already completing many of these activities, even if you refer to them by a different name. Framing these exercises to be deliverable-focused will increase the efficiency of your team by ensuring that all activities directly add value to the project.

Definition

The secret to defining deliverables is working backward.

What are your client’s objectives and expectations for this project? Are there specific quantitative targets they are hoping to achieve as a result of the project you’re managing?

Understanding the client’s objective(s) is the first step in the definition process as your deliverables should be developed to support these objectives.

Suppose you are a digital marketing expert engaged by a cupcake company to provide “social media support.” With that knowledge alone, how would you design your project plan or know where to channel your time and resources? How can you reliably satisfy the client’s needs without knowing whether the hours you spend providing “social media support” will achieve their objectives?

Simply build deliverables into the project contract with an estimated number of hours tied to the development of each deliverable.

For the cupcake company, the contract outline might look something like this:

Client: Cupcake Company
Client Objective: Increase cupcake sales to repeat customers through social media.

Deliverables:

  • Social media marketing strategy (Google Doc)
  • Social media editorial calendar (Google Sheet)
  • 20 high-resolution photographs of cupcakes
  • Copy for 20 Facebook captions
  • Copy for 20 Instagram captions
  • 3x Instagram promotional campaigns

By leveraging a deliverable-based contract or statement of work, you are stating that you will exchange the defined deliverables for the agreed upon rate to achieve the stated objectives. Defining deliverables will make your life easier by establishing the foundation for a successful project and also demonstrate to your client that you are dedicated to collaboratively working toward achieving their objectives.

Deconstruction 

deconstruction

By collaborating with your client, you’ve successfully defined your project deliverables.

Your next goal is to break each deliverable down into the smallest possible units for the purpose of tracking and delegating. This exercise is often referred to as creating a ‘work breakdown structure’ or ‘WBS.’

For each deliverable defined, ask yourself: “What work needs to be done to complete this deliverable?”

If you were engaged by a client to deliver “future state recommendations” in the form of a report, a deconstruction of that deliverable might look like:

  • Review budget data
  • Complete competitor analysis
  • Conduct workshop with key stakeholders to review current state pain points
  • Develop future state recommendations (PPT presentation)

Another essential consideration when breaking down deliverables is identifying two types of dependencies:

  • Dependencies on other deliverables
  • Dependencies on your client

In the above example, “review budget data” likely has a dependency on the client providing you with inputs. This dependency should be noted in the project plan, assigned a due date, and tracked as a risk if not provided. “Conduct workshop with key stakeholders to review current state pain points” is dependent on the development of the current state pain points which may be a previous project deliverable.

After identifying dependencies, assign activity deadlines with dependencies in mind.  Make sure to build in room for multiple rounds of feedback and review to be sure you will have everything you need to start the dependent activity on schedule.

Proper deconstruction of deliverables is critical for accurate progress tracking, and you’ll see why below.

Assignment

After breaking down deliverables into the smallest measurable activities needed to complete them, we can begin assigning individual activities to the appropriate team member.

As this article from the Harvard Business Review suggests, the first step to delegating is hiring the right people for your team in the first place. It is your responsibility as the project manager to understand the skill set of your team and determine who is best suited for the work. Imagine you are the coach of a basketball team – if your team needs a three-pointer to win, you need to make sure your best shooter is in the game!

When delegating, consider the expertise and bandwidth of your team members but also seek opportunities to maximize efficiency.

Let’s say your team needs to conduct 10 workshops over the course of a project. You might engage a team member with experience designing and facilitating workshops to develop the strategy and agenda for all 10 workshops and task a less experienced team member with organizing workshop logistics like scheduling and attendees to maximize efficiency.

Share these assignments and review expectations with your team as early in the project as possible to allow clarification of any questions or concerns around meeting deadlines.

Progress Tracking

progress tracking

Now that your deliverables are defined and broken down to the activity level with set deadlines and assignments for each activity, it’s time to sit back and relax!

Just kidding.

The next phase of deliverable strategy is implementing appropriate tools and processes for tracking the progress being made toward the completion of each deliverable.

There are a variety of methods and tools available for tracking the progress of your deliverables and monitoring risks. Depending on the number of projects you are managing, and the number of team members involved, you as the project manager may want notification when a task/subtask has been completed and/or notification when a deadline is at risk.

For accurate status tracking, it is important to select a project management tool that is flexible and easy to use. Every member of your team should be able to easily enter updates on activities to which they are assigned. You as the project manager need an ‘at-a-glance’ view of the project without weeding through data or reading blocks of text.

According to the National Academies Press, one of the top issues plaguing project managers is how to identify that a deadline is at risk before that deadline has passed.

“Ensuring that adequate and timely risk identification is performed is the responsibility of the owner, as the owner is the first participant in the project. The sooner risks are identified, the sooner plans can be made to mitigate or manage them.”

The solution to this challenge begins with proper deconstruction. That means deconstructing each deliverable into small enough activities will help you to identify a risk as soon as one activity is not completed on schedule.

Many project management tools will systematically track deliverable progress as your team members indicate activities are completed; however, it is recommended to also have processes in place for documenting additional qualitative detail. You as the project manager will likely need to elaborate on deliverable progress beyond a simple status like “percent completed” or “on track.” Preferably, your team members will be able to enter additional context and commentary directly in the project management tool.

Quality Review

quality review

Establishing and budgeting time for a thorough quality review is a key component of your deliverable strategy. Quality review serves as the final layer between the deliverable and the client. Internal deliverables should also be run through a quality review process, although the steps may differ slightly.

When a deliverable is completed by the assigned team member, what will make you as the project manager confident that the best possible product is being delivered to the client?

A quality review process usually includes steps to validate that the deliverable:

  • Maintains consistency with other deliverables
  • Fulfills contractual obligations
  • Is free of all errors or typos
  • Aligns with the appropriate style guide

Depending on the size and expertise of your team, a single resource or multiple resources may be included in the quality review process. For example, a marketing team member may review the deliverable to confirm alignment with the style guide while the account manager will review the deliverable for alignment with the contract.

Best practices include:

  • Budgeting ample time for iterations on deliverables
  • Sharing drafts or outlines early (either internally or with the client, depending on your methodology) to confirm you are on the right track
  • Documenting sign-off from each team member involved in the quality review process.

Following the quality review process, you should feel confident submitting the deliverable to your client. As a best practice, always ask your client to send written approval of the deliverable.

Managing Change

When managing a complex project that spans a few months or even a few years, some deviation from the initial project plan is almost inevitable.

Your client may decide that the deliverables you carefully defined at project kickoff are no longer relevant or identify unforeseen needs that require the development of new deliverables. At the outset of a project, even the best project managers can’t predict the need to modify, add, or remove a deliverable. Instead, you should establish a process for managing changes to your deliverable strategy.

A change control process outlines the steps for review and approval of any changes to deliverables, budget, or timelines by key client stakeholders. It is best practice to establish a change control process at project initiation. Recommendations presented to these stakeholders for approval are often labeled “change requests.”  Change requests are usually initiated by the project manager and approved by the client, particularly when there are budgetary impacts.

Conclusion

Crafting a clear deliverable strategy is essential to the timely execution and management of any project. Investing time at the outset to establish quality review and change management processes and selecting the right project management tool for your needs will allow you to focus on managing the project when it matters most!

Tracy Brinkerhoff is the co-founder and principal consultant of CoLo Consulting, a provider of technology-focused solutions for small and mid-sized businesses. Previously, Tracy worked as a product manager for a healthcare tech startup and as a project manager for a management consulting firm in NYC. When not helping her clients navigate new technologies, you can find Tracy practicing yoga or eating her way through new countries!