- What is a Project Plan?
- What Is Project Planning Software?
- Benefits of Online Project Planning Software
- Must-Have Project Planning Software Features
- Project Planning Terms
- Stages of a Project Plan
- How ProjectManager.com Helps With Your Project Plans
- Why You Need A Project Plan
- The Elements of A Project Plan
- How Long Does Project Planning Take?
- Techniques for Project Plans
- How To Manage Your Plan
- How To Plan When You Don’t Have All the Answers
- Next Steps for Project Planning
What is a Project Plan?
A project plan is a series of formal documents that define the execution and control stages of a project. The plan includes considerations for risk management, resource management and communications, while also addressing scope, cost and schedule baselines. Project planning software is used by project managers to ensure that their plans are thorough and robust.
What’s Included in a Project Plan?
The project plan answers the who, what, where, why, how and when of the project, and it describes all the goals and objectives. These are defined in a statement of work.
The largest components of a project plan are the proposed schedule and budget. A work breakdown structure (WBS) helps you collect all the tasks that lead to your final deliverable. Further documentation that is part of the larger project plan includes quality management, stakeholder management, project change management and requirements management.
This guide aims to give you all the information and resources you need to draft your project plan and get it approved. Let’s start with the basics of writing your own project plan.
How Do You Write a Project Plan?
Your project plan is essential to the success of any project. Without one, you risk going off schedule and losing money that has been invested in the project. While writing a project plan is somewhat labor intensive up front, the effort will pay dividends throughout the life cycle of your project.
The basic outline of any project plan can be summarized in these five steps:
- Define your project’s objectives, scope, success criteria, deliverables, requirements and schedule.
- Identify risks and assign a team member to monitor for, and own, that risk if it arises in the project, as well as define assumptions and potential constraints.
- Organize your project team (customers, stakeholders, teams, and so on), and define their roles and responsibilities.
- List the necessary project resources, such as equipment, salaries, and materials, then estimate their cost.
- Create a communication plan, schedule, budget and other guiding documents for the project.
Every one of the above steps corresponds to the five stages of a project, which we will outline in the next section.
The 5 Phases of a Project
Any project, whether big or small, has the potential to be very complex. It’s much easier to break down all the necessary inclusions for a project plan by viewing your project in terms of phases. The Project Management Institute, within the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), have identified the following phases of a project:
- Initiation: The start of a project, in which goals and objectives are defined through a business case and the practicality of the project is determined by a feasibility study.
- Planning: The scope of the project is defined and the project methodology to manage the project is decided on. Costs, quality and resources are estimated, and a schedule with milestones and task dependencies is identified.
- Execution: The project deliverables are completed during this phase. Usually, this phase begins with a kick-off meeting and is followed by regular team meetings and status reports while the project is being worked on.
- Monitoring & Controlling: This phase is performed in tandem with the project execution phase. Progress and performance metrics are measured to keep progress on the project aligned with the project plan.
- Closure: The project is completed when the stakeholder receives the final deliverable. Resources are released, contracts are signed off on and, ideally, there will be an evaluation of the successes and failures.
There are project plan templates out there that can help you organize your tasks and begin the planning process—but we here at ProjectManager.com recommend the use of project planning software. The feature set is far more robust and integrated with every phase of the project compared to an Excel template, and is a great way to ensure your actual progress stays aligned with your planned progress.
What Is Project Planning Software?
Watch the video below to see how project planning software helps organize a project’s tasks, resources and costs.
Project planning software has become an invaluable tool for project managers in recent years, as it provides them the ability to maintain and automate the components we outlined above.
Beyond that, planning software also allows managers to monitor and track their plan as it moves through the execution phase of the project. These features include dashboards, for a high-level view of the project’s progress and performance, and in-depth reports that can be used to communicate with stakeholders.
Project planning software comes in all different sizes and shapes. There are some that focus on a single aspect, and others that offer a suite of planning features. What’s right for your project depends on your specific needs.
Benefits of Online Project Planning Software
Online project planning software is highly flexible and adaptable to your team’s style of work.
Before the rise of planning software, managers would typically have to keep up with a disjointed collection of documents, excel spreadsheets and so on. Savvy managers, however, make use of the tools available to them to automate what they can, and streamline what they can’t.
Some of the time-saving benefits of project planning software include the following.
- Organize, prioritize and assign tasks
- Plan and schedule milestones and task dependencies
- Monitor progress, costs and resources
- Collaborate with team
- Share project plans with team and stakeholders
- Generate reports on plans
Gantt Charts for Superior Planning
A Gantt chart is the most essential tool for project planning. Organize tasks, add their duration and they automatically populate a project timeline. Set milestones to break the larger project into manageable phases, and link task dependencies to avoid bottlenecks later in the project.
Get More Than a To-Do List
When planning a project, you need more than a to-do list. Seek out a planning software with a task list feature that lets you set priority levels, filters and collaborate. It’s a big plus if you can also make personal task lists that are private to manage your own work.
Use Kanban for Workflows
Workflows ensure proper execution of your plan, and no feature does this better than kanban boards. Customize boards to match your workflow and drag and drop cards as teams get their work done. See what work needs to be done and keep the focus on productivity with this feature.
Be Able to Track Progress
A dashboard can keep your project plan on track. Try and find a dashboard that’s synced with your planning tools, so everything updates automatically. It will make reporting easier too.
Get Transparency Into Teams
For a plan to go smoothly, you have to know what your team is working on. Find a way to balance your team’s availability with the project schedule. Workload features that map out resource allocation and holidays can be a big help here.
Be Able to Manage Multiple Projects
Rarely do you need to only focus on one project at a time. Give yourself the flexibility to manage multiple projects at once in the same tool. A roadmap feature that maps all of your projects on one timeline can be a lifesaver.
Project Planning Terms
Before we dive into how you plan a project, it helps to be familiar with some of the terms that you’ll run across. Here is a list of general terms you’ll encounter in this guide.
- Deliverable: The results of a project, such as a product, service, report, etc.
- Stakeholder: Anyone with a vested interest in the project—team members, customers, etc.
- Tasks: Small jobs that lead to the final deliverable.
- Milestone: The end of one project phase, and the beginning of the next.
- Resources: Anything you need to complete the project, such as supplies, materials, tools, people and more.
- Budget: Estimate of total cost related to completing a project.
- Tracking & Monitoring: Collecting project data, and making sure it reflects the results you planned for.
Stages of a Project Plan
Now, we’re going to take you through the various steps that are necessary to plan a project. By following these steps, we’re going to:
- Clarify what you need to achieve
- Work out the processes you need to get there
- Develop an action plan for how you are going to take this forward
1. Outline the Business Case
If you have a project, there’s a reason for it—that’s your business case. The business case outlines reasons why the project is being initiated, its benefits and the return on investment. If there’s a problem that is being solved, then that problem is outlined here. The business case will be presented to those who make decisions at your organization, explaining what has to be done, and how. If approved, you have a project.
2. Meet with Stakeholders
Every project has stakeholders, those who have a vested interest in the project. From the ones who profit from it, to the ones who are responsible for its success. Therefore, any project planning must identify who these stakeholders are, from customers to regulators. Meeting with them is crucial to get a better picture of what the project is and what is expected from the final deliverable.
3. Define Project Scope
Scope is another pillar of project planning. It speaks to the essential tasks that the project is committed to delivering to its stakeholders. Therefore, the scope of your project includes what you must do in the project, but also what is nonessential. The latter is important, because knowing what isn’t high priority helps to avoid scope creep; that is, using valuable resources for something that isn’t key to your project’s success.
4. Set Goals & Objectives
Goals and objectives are different things when it comes to planning a project. Goals are the results you want to achieve, and are usually broad. Objectives, on the other hand, are more specific; measurable actions that must be taken to reach your goal. When planning a project, the goals and objectives naturally spring from the business case, but in this stage you go into further detail. In a sense, you’re fine-tuning the goals set forth in the business case and creating tasks that are clearly defined. These goals and objectives are collected in a project charter, which you’ll use throughout the project life cycle.
5. Outline Deliverables
A deliverable is simply a good or service that is the product of a project. That could include the final deliverable— the reason for the project—but it can also be each of the various steps taken to reach that goal. The first thing to do is determine what the final deliverable is, and how you will know that the quality meets your stakeholder’s expectations. As for the other deliverables in the project, they must also be identified and someone on the team must be held responsible for their successful completion.
6. Create a Project Schedule
The project schedule is what everything hangs on. From your tasks to your budget, it’s all defined by time. Schedules are made up by collecting all the tasks needed to reach your final deliverable, and setting them on a timeline that ends at your deadline. This can make for an unruly job ahead, which is why schedules are broken into phases, indicated by milestones, which mark the end of one part of the project and the beginning of the next.
7. Assign Tasks
The plan is set, but it still exists in the abstract until you take the tasks on your schedule and begin assigning them out to your team. Therefore, you need to assemble a team that has the skills and experiences needed to complete the project. Their roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined, so they know what to do. Then, when you assign them tasks from your plan, they should be clear, with directions and any related documentation they will need to execute the tasks.
8. Assess Risk
Every project has some level of risk. Your project planning was thorough, but internal and external factors will impact your project’s time, cost and/or scope. Therefore, you need to regard your planning as flexible. There are many ways to prepare for risk, but for now, the most important thing to do is keep an eye on your project and make sure it’s going as you had planned. This is done by monitoring your progress, and comparing what is actually happening against where you planned to be at that point in the project.
9. Report Your Progress
Your ultimate goal is to ensure a successful project for your stakeholders. They’re invested, and will not be satisfied twiddling their thumbs until the project runs its course. If you don’t keep stakeholders informed, they’re going to get in the way of managing the project. Having regular meetings where you present progress reports are a great way to show them that everything is moving forward as planned and to field any questions or concerns they might have.
How ProjectManager.com Helps With Your Project Plans
Project planning software is a tool that helps to plan, organize and manage the schedule and resources needed to complete a project. ProjectManager.com is an award-winning software that organizes projects from planning to completion. Sign up for a free 30-day trial and follow along to build a thorough project plan that covers every detail.
1. List Your Tasks for the Plan
Tasks are the building blocks of any project and the start of any plan is identifying all the tasks that lead to your final deliverable.
Open the tool to add your tasks on the Gantt chart or one of the other multiple project views. You can import a task list from any spreadsheet or use one of our templates to get started.
2. Add Duration and Costs to Tasks
Every task has an estimated duration, which is the time it will take to complete it. They will also require a certain amount of funding, which needs to be collected to formulate your plan.
Add the start and end dates for each task in the Gantt and they populate a project timeline, so you can see the whole project laid out in one place. There’s also a column for task costs.
3. Link Dependent Tasks
Tasks are not always separate from one another. Often one cannot start or stop until another has started or stopped. That’s called a task dependency and needs to be noted in your plan.
Link dependent tasks by dragging one to the other. A dotted line indicates that they’re linked, so you stay aware of the fact and can avoid bottlenecks later in the project.
4. Set Milestones & Baseline
A milestone indicates the end of one phase and the beginning of another, which helps with tracking and morale. The baseline sets your plan so you can compare it to actual progress.
There is a filter on the Gantt that automatically sets the baseline, so you can use it to track your actual progress against the plan. The baseline can also be locked with a click.
5. Onboard Team & Assign
Getting the team and the tool together is how a project plan becomes actualized. The easier and seamless this transition, the faster you’ll get to work on the project.
Invite your team from the software and it generates an email with a link. Once they follow that link, they’re in and have access to the tools they need to manage their tasks.
6. Monitor Progress & Report to Stakeholders
Keeping track of your progress and then updating stakeholders is both how you stay on track and manage your stakeholders’ expectations.
See progress as it happens on our real-time dashboard, which calculates data and displays it over six project metrics. Reports can be filtered and shared for a deep dive into those numbers.
7. Adjust Plan As Needed
No plan remains the same throughout a project. Things happen and changes are demanded. Therefore, being able to edit your plan easily is key to project planning.
Edit your plan on the Gantt by a simple drag and drop. Move the old date to the new date and not only is that task fixed, but any impacted tasks are also updated automatically.
ProjectManager.com is an award-winning software that helps managers plan and helps teams get organized. Gantt charts control all aspects of your project plan from scheduling to assigning tasks and even monitoring progress. Multiple project views provide transparency into workflow and give everyone the tools they need to be at their best.
The project manager is responsible for producing the project plan, and while you can’t make up all the content yourself, you’ll be the one banging the keys to type it all out. Use templates where you can to save time. Download our free project plan template and write your plan in double-quick time!
Why You Need A Project Plan
We plan at the beginning to save time later. A good plan means that you don’t have to worry about whether those people are going to be available on the right dates—because you’ve planned for them to be. You don’t have to worry about how to pay those invoices—you’ve planned your financial process. You don’t have to worry about whether everyone agrees on what a quality outcome looks like—you’ve already planned what quality measures you are going to use.
A good project plan sets out the processes that everyone is expected to follow, so it avoids a lot of headaches later. For example, if you specify that estimates are going to be worked out by subject matter experts based on their judgement, and that’s approved, later no one can complain that they wanted you to use a different estimating technique. They’ve known the deal since the start.
Planning streamlines the doing.
Project plans are also really helpful for monitoring progress. You can go back to them and check what you said you were going to do and how, comparing it to what you are actually doing. This gives you a good reality check and enables you to change course if you need to, bringing the project back on track.
Tools like dashboards can help you make sure that your project is proceeding according to plan. ProjectManager.com has a real-time dashboard that updates automatically whenever tasks are updated.
The Elements of A Project Plan
The project planning already discussed only scratches the surface of what is a deep well of practices created to control your project. They start with dialogue — speaking to stakeholders, teams, et al.
The deliverable for your planning phase is a document called the project plan. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) – Fifth Edition says that the project plan is made up of lots of subsidiary plans. These include:
- A plan for managing the human resources on the team both in terms of availability and skills
- A plan for managing costs and the budgeting elements of the project including any procurements or supplier engagements you might have
- A communications plan setting out who is going to receive messages about the project, when and in what format
- A plan for dealing with project risk including the processes for logging and tracking risks
- A quality plan that specifies the quality targets for the project
That’s a lot of documentation.
In reality, it’s rare that you’ll produce these as individual documents. What you need is a project plan that talks about the important elements of each of these. There’s no point creating a big document that sets out exactly how your business works anyway. If you already have a structured risk management process, then don’t waste time writing it all down again in your project plan.
Your project plan needs to include enough information to make sure that you know exactly what processes and procedures need to be followed and who needs to be involved. Get your project plan approved by your stakeholders, your project sponsor and your team so there are no surprises later.
How Long Does Project Planning Take?
This is hard to answer. It’s going to take longer to plan the moon landing than a new dating app.
The best way to estimate how long your project planning phase will take is to look at similar projects that have happened before, and see how long it took them to plan. Talk to the project manager as well, if you can, because they’ll have a view on whether that length of time was enough or not!
It’s easy to see how long other projects took if you have a project management tool that archives your old project schedules and makes the data available to everyone who needs it. You can then search for similar projects and study their schedules in detail.
Techniques for Project Plans
A project plan is all about working out what to do and how to do it, so you need to get a lot of people involved. There are several good tools and techniques for getting information from other people including:
- One-to-one meetings or interviews
- Surveys or customer focus groups to gather and validate requirements.
You should also arm yourself with a task management tool, like a list or a kanban board. They are incredibly useful for noting down important things that should be in your project plan. Kanban board software can help structure your plan by writing down the key headings and then moving them around as required until you have a flow that looks right.
Finally, you’ll need an online project management system to store your plan in. Make sure that everyone in the team can access the latest version of the project plan.
How To Manage Your Plan
Your project plan is not a document written in stone. You should be referring back to it and making changes to it as often as you need to. Parts of it, like your project schedule, will change almost daily. Other parts, like your procurement plans and cost management processes, won’t change at all during the life of your project.
The important thing to remember is that if your plan isn’t working for you, think about what you can do to change it. It’s there to guide your project management, not restrict you from doing the right thing. If you need to review how you manage project resources, then go back and review it. Make the changes you need, get the plan approved again and share it with the team.
How To Plan When You Don’t Have All the Answers
Yes, this happens–most of the time! It’s rare to have all the information at the beginning of a project. Most managers want you to dive in and get started, but you might not have the luxury of knowing all the details.
That’s OK; we have techniques to help deal with uncertainty.
First is the project assumption. You use these to put caveats on your plan and to document the things that you assume to be true at this point in time. For example:
- We assume that the resources will be available.
- We assume that the required funding is available.
- We assume that the colors requested will be in line with the company brand and that Marketing sign off is not required.
You get the picture. Then, if the design team comes back and says that they want the product to be a totally new palette of colors and that Marketing has to approve that, you are justified in saying that you’ll have to change the timescales on the schedule to make that possible.
You planned based on an assumption (that everyone agreed to, because you got the document approved) and that assumption turned out not to be true.
Next Steps for Project Planning
The most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t rush project planning. Done properly, project planning takes time. And it’s worth doing it properly because if you don’t, we guarantee that you will hit problems later on as people won’t understand what they are supposed to do and why.
Great planning sets you up for success. It gives you the confidence of knowing that you’ve got all your processes, tools and systems in place to deliver the perfect result.
Now that you’ve learned all about project planning, it’s time to take action. Sign up for a free 30-day trial of ProjectManager.com and start planning your project today!
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