What is Project Planning?

Projects come in all sizes with varying degrees of complexity, but one thing that all successful projects have in common is structure. A project should be planned out and organized from day one.

That’s easier said than done. There are a lot of components to any project, such as its duration, its cost and how it will be executed. These components, and more, must be addressed in your project plan.

Project planning, then, is about identifying, prioritizing and assigning the tasks and resources necessary to complete a project successfully. A thorough project plan establishes who will be on your team, what tools and materials will be needed, and the processes necessary for efficient execution. And of course, there’s the financial commitment outlined in a budget, along with the communication channels that will keep teams and stakeholders updated.

Project planning can be quite a task, which is why project managers typically employ the use of project planning software to streamline the effort and stay organized.

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 Project Planning

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.

Project Planning Software Video

It’s clear that project planning is an in-depth process with many challenges. Watch the video below to see how project planning software can help you build your project plans online for easier implementation. Or, you can keep scrolling and read our full walkthrough in the next section.

Project management training video (ytqih2t48o)

How ProjectManager.com Helps With Your Project Planning

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.

Task list project view on ProjectManager.com.

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.

Online Gantt chart from ProjectManager.com.

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.

Setting milestones on Gantt chart with ProjectManager.com.

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.

Setting milestones on Gantt chart with ProjectManager.com.

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.

Assigning teams to projects on ProjectManager.com.

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.

Project plan report from ProjectManager.com.

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.

Roadmap view on ProjectManager.com.

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.

Ready to make your plan? Try ProjectManager.com today with this free 30-day trial.

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.

ProjectManager.com's project dashboard

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!

ProjectManager.com project overview

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.

The Tools for Project Planning

Project planning 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:

  • Workshops
  • 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.

ProjectManager.com Kanban board cutomization

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.

Project Planning Infographic

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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