Quick Guide: Top 12 Project Planning Steps


No matter the size of a project, there are certain tasks you should remember to follow to ensure your project gets started off on the right foot. Here are twelve essential project planning steps.

Use this quick guide the next time you’re looking to start a project. (For a deeper exploration, read our Ultimate Guide to Project Planning.) Better yet, print or share the checklist to help keep you and your team on track! It’s a great reference if you’re new to project management, and a good review for experienced managers.

1.  Define the Scope

This is an important first step because it answers the question of exactly what needs to be completed. This scope needs to clearly articulate and define what this project looks like, why it’s important, what it needs to accomplish, and roughly when it needs to be completed. It’s important to establish what’s in and out of your project’s scope at the start, so you don’t get distracted with irrelevant tasks. Check out Jennifer Bridges video on How to Baseline Project Scope to learn more.

12 step guide to project planning

2.  Identify Your Project Supporters

The project that is defined from above must have sponsors or stakeholders that the completion of this project is important to. Find out who these people are. They may be funding the project, or have the influence necessary to keep the project moving forward when the going gets tough.

Establish a relationship with this group of people and communicate with them on a regular basis about the good, the bad, and the ugly that is happening with your project. Their vested interest will help you get more done with less aggravation.

3. Determine Available Resources

Based upon the scope defined in Step 1, you should have a pretty good idea of what type of resources will be needed to complete the project. Are they technical in nature? Do they need a special skill set or training? Are they already on-site and available or will they need to be hired or contracted in order to complete the project?

This will give you a good sense of what you will need to do fill in any major gaps when it comes to resources planning.

4.  Check the Timeline

A big part of planning is to understand the timeline that has been associated with a project. In a perfect world, the scope and resources available should determine how long the project will take. But, we all know that many times this is not the case.

Market pressures will accelerate how fast a project needs to be finished in order to compete with new technology. Or, perhaps a salesperson committed a date to a client in order to get the deal without really knowing what it takes.

Get a sense of what you are dealing with so you can determine if it will be feasible with what you have in place already or if creative project planning will be necessary.

5.  List the Big Steps

This is a simple way of saying to start putting together your Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). However you breakdown your WBS (deliverable, service, hybrid, etc.) you need to start thinking about those activities and deliverables that are big and discrete enough to go along the top level of this hierarchy.

This will help you determine whether you have captured “the big picture” of what needs to be done to complete this project.

6.  Break Down the Smaller Steps

Once you’ve determined what the big steps are, now break them down into smaller chunks of bite-size work that can be doled out to the team.

For example, one of the Big Steps from Step 5 above may be “Documentation Complete”. The smaller steps would then consist of deliverables along the lines of Technical Manual, Release Notes, and Training Manual. This could be broken down even further into Write Manual, Design Manual, and Print Manual. This process helps ensure each deliverable is seen to its completion.

7.  Develop a Draft Plan

At this point you know what the project is, how long you have to do it, the resources that are available, and roughly what needs to be done. This is when you put together a draft plan. This is your first stab at combining the dates, deliverables, and resources together. It’s the time to identify dependencies and include them in the plan. You are working on the plan in a vacuum right now. That’s why it’s called a draft plan. Because, the moment it sees the light of day and your team gets their eyes on it, they will identify all the things you missed or got wrong. That’s what Step #8 is for.

Related: Free Gantt Chart Template

8.  Create your Baseline Project Plan

Now that you have the draft complete, you want the feedback from your team. Review it with them. Let them know your thought process when it comes to planning a project of this type. Let them think about it and then listen to their feedback. They will recognize areas that you may have missed, are technically impossible, or may conflict (or benefit from) some other initiative that is already in progress. Take it all in, weigh each suggestion against your experience and discretion, and then develop version 1.0 of the project plan.

9.  Refine the Plan Based on Reality

Now that the plan is moving forward, reflect and refine based upon the reality of what is actually happening on the project. Are things going well or running behind? Make adjustments accordingly. This can be either to the plan or to how the plan is being executed, for example, bringing on more resources to complete it on time or reducing the scope and moving some deliverable to a future phase.

10.  Monitor Progress

Progress will need to be something that is constantly monitored on a daily basis. Is the plan staying on track? Are issues being addressed and resolved in a timely manner?  It’s your job as a project manager to include how progress and success will be monitored throughout the duration of the project: one of the best methods will be project planning online to monitor progress against plans. Project reporting is essential for this step.

11.  Document Everything

Planning a project has to do as much with understanding that things will change as it does putting the original plan together. Make sure you keep up with these changes in writing and update documentation to reflect reality frequently. There’s nothing worse than someone realizing way into the project that they were working off the wrong version of the specification document or project schedule and find themselves separated from where the rest of the team was heading. Using templates will help make documentation process more efficient, as well.

12.  Keep Everyone Up to Date

Finally, you need to include mechanisms in your project plan that will keep everyone up to date. It may be a simple “everything is just fine” message that is blasted out to anyone and everyone interested in the progress of the project or an emergency conference call in order to address a problem that just arose. Don’t leave the communication plan to chance. If you do, people that need to know and that can help with the success of the project may not have the information they need to assist.

Keep these 12 steps in mind when you’re planning your next project. But don’t forget the most important advice of all: the right tools will help you plan infinitely more quickly. Start your 30-day free trial of ProjectManager.com to explore the software we developed to help make every aspect of your project planning easier. From simple task management to complex project planning, our online tool has everything you need to plan, share, manage and track your projects and help you succeed.

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