Every project needs a plan! But where do you start? How do you know what to include and what is important to think about before the project work begins? And what are the likely challenges you’ll see when putting together a structured project plan?
On this page you'll find the answers to those questions and more! This is your one-stop guide to project planning.
We also have a range of expert podcast interviews with practitioners and thought leaders who can help you think strategically about what project planning means for your project.
Listen now to this featured podcast on project plans.
Project planning is the process of working out how you are going to deliver the project with the team. It involves establishing the scope of the work (and what is not going to be in scope), confirming the project objectives and making sure everyone is clear on how the work will be managed.
In other words, how to make a project plan is one of the first things you should spend time on during the project. It is more than your list of tasks and dates – that list is what project managers normally refer to as a project schedule. The schedule is an important part of the plan, but it’s not the only part.
While all the project management processes are important, many of your stakeholders will consider creating the project plan to be the most important step in getting the project going. In this step you agree how to actually do the work of the project. The team decides which project methodology you will use, who needs to be involved and how you will handle things that might or do go wrong.
What is the most important part of the project plan? It's that you have a clear objective about what is going to be done. It’s crucial that everyone has the same understanding about what is to be delivered, so the team can work together with a common goal.
There are many other needs for project planning including:
When you take the time to plan your project, everyone knows what is going on and what they have to do.
The project planning phase happens at the start of the project. Preparing your project plan document is something you’ll do as the project gets started. You'll normally work with input from the project sponsor and the rest of the project team. You’ll need their support and agreement for many of the components of your project plan, for example, who is going to do the work and how much it will cost.
Every project needs a plan, and the good news is that every other project in your organization should have had one. So you don't need to start from scratch. Find an example of a project work plan from a past project and use that to get started.
As a project manager, your technical skills take you far but they don’t take you far enough. When the project starts getting more and more complex, the leadership skills become more and more important.
The project plan is a document that lays out everything the team needs to know about how the project will be managed. It’s normally made up of several sub-plans that cover quality, stakeholder engagement, team management, communication, risk, quality and cost management, and you might include other elements if your project environment calls for them. Essentially, include in your project management plan everything you need to document how the project will be managed and controlled going forward. A project overview template will help because it wil cover all the processes the team needs to follow so that everyone understands the steps to take.
If you have a PMO, the steps for how to create a project plan will be simpler. Many of the processes you need to follow will be managed by that team. This makes preparing your project plan easier because you can simply reference the PMO best practices and requirements. Ask the PMO Manager for a project plan sample from a past project that they consider to be a good example of best practice.
The project manager’s role is to produce the project plan, even though you will not have all the information required to populate it. You’ll need to work with your project team, facilitating meetings and collaborating on the final document until you’ve got something you can work from.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to the project planning process.
What is it that you are trying to do? The first of the project planning process steps answers this question. At this point you are looking for key success criteria, high level deliverables and overall goals. We’ll get to planning the tasks in detail a little later.
You can often find information for the project plan outline in the business case, or get it from your project sponsor if you aren’t clear on the goals.
Now we come to working out exactly what tasks are required. You can create a project scope document, requirement documentation and a Work Breakdown Structure, or any combination of those things that will help everyone on the team understand the full scope of the work. This is where your skills in how to facilitate productive project planning meetings will be really useful! Get the group together and talk about what project planning questions you need answers to in order to establish what tasks are required.
For each task, estimate how long it will take, how much it will cost and assign someone to take responsibility for it.
Take your list of tasks and work out the order in which they need to be completed. For example, you can’t paint the walls of the new office before the building has been constructed. Your subject matter experts will be important here: they should advise on the order for their tasks. The links between tasks that determine the order of work are called dependencies.
You’ve got information about how long tasks will take and what order they need to happen in, so now you can go ahead and create the project schedule. Use a project management software tool to make things easier. You’ll end up with a visual representation of your project work in a format everyone can see and understand.
You know who is going to be responsible for each task, so now add their details into the project schedule. This step helps you see who has a lot of work on at any one moment in time. You don’t want your resources to be overloaded, so you might need to make adjustments to the schedule to allow for their other commitments. Remember, many project resources work on multiple projects so they might not be available to you on a full-time basis.
Use your project management system to save a baseline project plan. This is a snapshot in time and it’s really useful so you can compare project performance against what you planned.
The project schedule is an important part of the plan, but you’ll also want to look at how the team will manage quality, risk and more. Take the time to consider how you are going to address those important project management processes and document how you will work together. When all the sub-plans are created you can safely say you have a completed project plan!
The main purpose of project plans is to document what is going to happen so everyone knows what is expected of them. But plans change. You’ve invested a lot of time in creating a plan as good as it can be, but as soon as you start the work you’ll find you need to make adjustments.
If you start the project and realize you need a different approach to managing project risk, then change your practices and change the project plan to reflect your new way of working. Just remember to let the rest of the team know that you have updated the document. If the changes are significant, you might need to go through the project document approval process again.
Be prepared to be flexible and make whatever changes you need to so the team stays on track.
Creating a project plan can be even easier if you start from a document template. Templates lay out the documentation for you, so you’ve got all the headings and topics you need to include. Many templates even have sample text in them so you can see an example of a simple project plan to give you ideas about how to document your own work.
We have collated our recommended project plan templates and we even did a podcast episode about them! In the video podcast, you can see the sites we recommend and take a peek inside a couple of template examples. Watch the episode about project plan templates.
You can create plans in any kind of software. If your company doesn't have specialist project mangement software, look for a template that will help with how to create a project plan in Excel.
Here’s a quick-start project management plan checklist so you can make sure all the important elements are captured in your plan.
Planning is a collaborative effort to ensure the project runs smoothly. A great plan will start your project off in the right direction!
A good project plan saves you a lot of time because it removes uncertainty and provides a structure to follow for the whole project life cycle. It also removes a lot of the debate and discussion about whether the project has met quality criteria or how something should be done – because you’ve already documented and agreed what needs to happen.
Project planning can take time, but it’s time well spent. You are ultimately helping the team be more successful by setting them up for success. Strong planning results in a stronger outcome and fewer headaches along the way.