When taking on a project with any level of ambiguity, the first thing I like to do is to break the entire project (or at lead the ambiguous parts) into bite size chunks that make sense to everyone. This is done by creating a work breakdown structure, or WBS.
For those who have never done a WBS before it is simply the act of taking a large task (i.e. a project or phase) and decomposing it into smaller, finite tasks that can me easily managed. It not only gives scope clarity but also provides a great foundation for creating your plan.
When I first learned about creating a WBS, the tools at our disposal were a Sharpie and a set of coloured Post-it notes. We would write task names on the notes and stick them to the wall in a family tree-like fashion. While this worked great to inspire collaboration, it was a logistical pain in transferring that information to a project plan. Taking a picture of the Post-its on the wall in the configuration that we had created, creating an MS Project plan that matched everything we had done in our WBS, hoping nothing was left out (the bigger the WBS the better chance of this happening!). After all the hard work my team and I put in, the last thing I wanted to have happen was to make an error in the plan due to bad data entry.
I thought there had to be a tool out there that could help and sure enough, I found wbstool.com. It's a free tool (you have to sign up but I've yet to receive a spam from them in three years). It will allow you to create a WBS online using drag-and-drop functionality. It works great on a touch screen/smart board for your collaborative team sessions. You create parent-child tasks through a very slick and easy-to-learn interface. The best part about this tool - it exports very nicely to MS Project via XML output files. This means that you can go directly from your team planning meeting to a completed project plan in a matter of minutes. The tool has become a part of my project planning routine and I have recommended it to many of my colleagues.
Creating a WBS is vital to helping clarify ambiguous scope as well as helping chart a clear path to completing your project. While there are many ways and techniques to go about creating a WBS, I believe that this tool is by far the most efficient when it comes to not only creating the WBS but for taking you right through the planning process.