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Project Planning 101: A Step-by-Step Guide

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby on Oct 17, 2018

The success of your project depends on your project plan. It’s the ultimate guide that tells everyone where you’re going and how you will get there. But, it can also be the most difficult part of the process because it requires you to gather all the information into an organized, clear roadmap.

Planning a project means you have to understand the goals and stakeholder needs in order to plan all the tasks that ensure you meet your objectives. In this article, you’ll learn a simple process that turns vision into deliverables. We’ve included a clear guide focused on the time, money, and staffing you need to succeed. And, we’ve got tips and templates to get you there.


What Is Project Planning?

Project planning, also called work planning, drives your project. It clarifies what you want to accomplish and creates a clear, detailed roadmap that describes how you will get there. Whether you’re developing a computer game, building a parking garage, or creating a new flavor of ice cream, planning is critical to your project’s success.

According to the text, A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), project planning is the second phase of project management, following the conception and initiation phase. It takes the concept of what you want to do, based on the inputs of the project charter and concept proposal, and outlines the nuts and bolts of how you will achieve your goals. When planning your project you will define the following:

  • The scope of the project

  • Deliverables and the tasks you need to meet them

  • The sequence and schedule of those tasks, with a timetable and deadlines

  • Roles and responsibilities

  • Resources, such as staffing, budget, and equipment

  • Plans to manage time, staff, suppliers, costs, risk, and quality

  • Baselines and performance measures

  • Management plans to monitor your progress

Project planning is more than a list of steps and requirements. It is the heart of your project’s life cycle and reflects the mission and goals of your organization. When you communicate the project plan, you’re telling the story of who you are and what you want to accomplish.

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The History of Project Planning

Any project, from the pyramids of ancient Egypt to modern software systems, relies on the time-tested principles of project management and project planning. The master builders of the Great Wall of China and the aqueducts of the Roman Empire had to clarify objectives, define tasks, manage resources and schedules, and ensure quality.

But the origins of modern project management date back to the early 20th century, starting with the publication of The Principles of Scientific Management, by Frederick Winslow Taylor, in 1911. Taylor, drawing on his experience in the steel industry, focused his work on a systematic study of ways to improve efficiency in complex projects. Six years later, Henry Gantt developed the Gantt chart, a diagram that project managers could use to schedule and show each step of a project on a visual timeline. This was the first of many approaches to systematically sequencing and scheduling project tasks.

In the 1950s, new planning techniques formed the foundation of modern project management: the critical path method (CPM), developed by the DuPont Corporation and the Remington Rand Corporation, and the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), developed by the U.S. Navy. At the same time, professionals of project management established the American Association of Cost Engineers (now AACE International), an organization for project managers, cost engineers, project control specialists, and more. Other professional organizations were formed in the 1960s, including the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in 1965 and the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 1969. A range of approaches, from Waterfall techniques to Agile (and the Scrum subset) and Projects in Controlled Environments (PRINCE), have evolved since.

Regardless of the approach or the tools, project planning is output oriented, establishing the who, what, when, and how of a project. The project plan answers questions, like who will do the work, what they will do, when it will happen, and how much it will cost. A solid project plan is the ultimate source of information and communication for the project, keeping team members on track and keeping stakeholders in the loop.

For example, if you’re developing a new mobile device or app, you need to know whether designers can start creating the visual concepts while wireframes and functionality are in development. Which resources do you allocate to various tasks? How do you know how long the steps will take? What keeps the project from growing beyond its initial scope and budget? A realistic project plan is the best way to answer these questions.


Why Have a Project Plan?

No matter the size and scope of your project, you’ll need a plan to succeed. For example, you may want to build a faster system for your web users. Once you’ve identified how quickly you want your system to load, you can determine the tasks to reach the goal, who will do that work, when it’s due, how much it will cost, and who will give final approval. Without setting those parameters, all you have is an idea, not a project.

A sound project plan is a project manager’s best friend. It’s the main communication document for the project and acts as the roadmap for your team throughout project execution. Not only does it tell everyone what you are going to do, but it also establishes, identifies, and organizes the business requirements, resource plans, cost, schedule, goals, list of deliverables, milestones, quality standards, and delivery dates.

Additionally, without a plan you can run into unanticipated problems, costing you — and your organization — time and money. But by taking the time to develop one, it can help you to identify and anticipate roadblocks.

The final document will define how your project is implemented, executed, monitored, and controlled. In short, the project plan answers these questions:

  • What is the project’s scope?

  • What are the objectives?

  • What are the specific outcomes?

  • What are the major deliverables?

  • How will you get to those deliverables?

  • What are the deadlines?

  • When will the team meet specific milestones?

  • How will you define roles and responsibilities?

  • Who will provide feedback?

A key reason for project planning is to define the item you’re trying to solve for and identify the steps to get there. When you identify the objectives of the project, you articulate the problem your project is designed to solve. And as you plan the work, you can spot any conflicts among the schedule, cost, and resources, so you can identify the tradeoffs you need to make in order to stay within scope and meet your objectives.

Plus, once you’ve created the plan, you can get management approval and proceed confidently to the next phase: project execution. By creating a solid project plan, you get the project off on the right foot, demonstrating that you will meet the objectives and deliver your project on time, budget, and schedule.


What Is in a Project Plan?

At its most basic level, a project plan is a management document, with a set of tasks that guides your team in implementing the project and identifying the baselines for scope, schedule, cost, risk, and performance measurement. It helps you finish your project on time and on budget, allowing you to meet the standards identified at the beginning of the project.

For example, let’s say your company wants to roll out a new line of greeting cards for the holidays. The objective might be to produce three types of cards, with 10,000 cards in each line, to be shipped by September 30 at a maximum cost of $100,000. Now that you know the parameters, you can develop a plan to organize your team and tasks in order to meet those goals.

A project plan is not merely a project schedule, although that aspect is crucial, whether producing greeting cards or new software. As the foundation for managing the project, your plan  should include the following components:

  • Executive Summary or Introduction: A high-level overview of the goals and objectives of the project, including your project management approach

  • Project Scope: Based on the scope statement from the project charter, with plans for managing what falls within scope and identifying what is out of scope

  • Deliverables: The major components that will be delivered throughout the project

  • Schedule Baseline and Plan: The estimated project schedule and milestone deadlines and how you plan to manage time and schedule

  • Cost Baseline and Plan: The estimated budget and an explanation of how you will manage expenses and cost

  • Resource Baseline: Estimated resources needed and details around managing those resources, including procurement plans, solicitation plans, and plans for managing external suppliers, human resources, and staffing

  • Work Breakdown Structure: The deliverables, milestones, and resources that will ensure the project is completed

  • Communication Plan: A description of who will be informed about the project, how often, and how they will receive this information

  • Change Management Plan: The formal process to receive, review, and accept or reject changes to the project

  • Risk Management Plan: The risks to the project and the contingency plans

  • Configuration Management Plan: The components of the project and the audit changes

  • Quality Plan: The quantification of the baseline standards the project must meet

  • Process Improvement Plan: A document of how the team will analyze the effectiveness of the project, including the identification of where and how they can make improvements

  • Related Issues: The internal and external factors that could affect the completion of your plan

  • Material and Equipment Requirements: A list of what you need to accomplish the work

  • Approvals and Stakeholder Management: The details of the milestones that need formal approval and the identification of how stakeholders will be included in the approval proces


Who Uses a Project Plan?

The project plan tells the story of your project and organizes all the project factors, including documentation plans, workload, and management and oversights of each component. Since it touches so many areas, all the people involved will review, approve, and rely on the project plan. Here are the key stakeholders that will use the project plan:

  • Project Manager: The plan is the blueprint and roadmap for keeping the project on track. It’s the north star that a project manager uses to make sure the project succeeds.

  • Project Sponsor: Since the sponsor has the overall accountability for the project, they approve the plan and use it to ensure the project has the necessary resources, staffing, and support within the organization.

  • Designated Business Experts: These experts provide insight into the project’s requirements and deliverable standards. They use the plan to ensure that the end product is what they want and that it is delivered on the schedule they need.

  • Project Team: Much like a football playbook, the plan lets all team members know what they are assigned to do, when they will do it, and who they will work with.

  • End Users: Internal or external customers may be included in the development of the project plan. They are the ones who most clearly understand the problem you are trying to solve and can offer insight into the requirements and quality of the solution your project offers. They can tell you whether the output of your project meets their needs.

  • Auditors: They will assess the project to ensure whether the project’s objectives are aligned, whether you have the resources and processes to ensure your success, and whether you have achieved what you set out to do.

  • Quality and Risk Analysts: Use their expertise to ensure that you have considered all possible risks or roadblocks and can still meet the standards, budget, and timelines of the project.

  • Procurement Specialists: These stakeholders find the best vendors for all necessary project resources or materials and can help the project manager by managing the relationship with the vendor.


How Do You Write a Project Plan?

Writing the project plan can be the most challenging phase of project management. Project managers have to gather all the information needed for the plan, make projections based on assumptions about time, staff, resources, costs, equipment, and even any marketing needs. As you begin, look through your company’s archives for previous project plans.

You can learn two kinds of information from this historical research: how plans are written and formatted (and how you can take the best of that for your plan); and the successes or challenges of other projects. You can determine what worked and what didn’t and apply these findings to your project.

Even though the project plan contains a series of documents that provide all the details of the work, don’t let it become a dry document that stakeholders ignore or, worse, reject. Use the project plan to generate support and enthusiasm for the work ahead. It can inspire your company and your team by connecting the project to the greater mission of your organization.

Don’t complicate it with details that your audience already knows, such as your organization’s existing risk management or change control policies. Provide the information that your readers need to know about the specific project, not about the entire company.

Wondering how much detail is enough? Remember that some people will just skim the plan, while others will pore over every detail. To make it consumable for all, use outlines, executive summaries, bullet points, and callouts. The skimmers will get the high-level information they need, and the detail-oriented will be able to drill down into the information they want.

In the next phase of your research, talk to other project managers and your team. Interview project managers about the obstacles they faced, and ask for tips for addressing similar challenges of your project. Once you’ve gotten this background information, talk with your team. They will be the people who ensure the project succeeds, so get their input and buy-in during the planning process. They may have insight that you don’t have and will ask questions that surface important details. Plus, you also build trust with your team when they are involved in the planning process.

If you need ways to organize these conversations, here are several brainstorming tips:

  • Explain the Purpose of the Brainstorming Session: Just like your project has goals, so should your brainstorming time.

  • Establish a Time Limit: Sure, you could meet for hours on end, but a firm deadline focuses thinking and conversations.

  • Document Everything: Break out those sticky notes to capture ideas, schematics, functionality, and anything else that might help with the project plan. You may also consider documenting your notes within an online project planning tool, to create one location for project details. These notes make it easy for you to organize, and reorganize, the structure of your plan.

  • Avoid Excessive Agreement: If everyone agrees during your time together, your plan could suffer from groupthink, a lack of critical questioning about what you discuss.

  • Look for Outside Opinions: Whether you play devil’s advocate or you invite outsiders to your session, embrace the way tough questions can help inspire creative ideas.

  • Try Brainwriting over Brainstorming: Give everyone paper, index cards, or sticky notes. You can either ask people to write down each of their ideas on a separate piece of paper (one idea per card) within a pre-established time limit, or you can ask each person to write down an idea and then pass the paper to someone else in the group. The idea gets passed around to several people during your meeting, with each person contributing to the idea. However you conduct the writing session, gather and organize the ideas to start forming the outline of your project plan.

As you conduct research, interviews, and brainstorming sessions, you’ll get lots of ideas about what should be in the project plan. You’ll see that a major part of your plan is dealing with the uncertainty of estimating the project’s timing and costs.

Writing a project plan is really about balancing the goals, schedule, and costs in a way that demonstrates how you will control the scope of the project. Include enough information to describe the unique processes and procedures that will be followed for this project and who will be running point for each of these components.

Your final plan should also show how the tasks will result in the deliverables that meet the project’s main goal. Show the resources you’ll need for each task, how long tasks will take, and the dependencies of various tasks. Use plenty of charts, headers, bullet points, and outlines as you format the final packet of documents.

Your goal is to clearly communicate the plan so that stakeholders and the project sponsor know you understand the goals and give you their approval. This early communication will avoid blockers down the line.


What Happens in the Planning Phase of a Project?

In the planning phase of any project, you take the inputs of both the project charter and the concept proposal and produce the outputs of the project requirements, project schedule, and project management plan. The work during this phase involves thinking about and planning what you need to do and then putting the structure in place to accomplish the project’s goals.

Remember, you are planning and guiding the project, not creating it. There is no single way to plan a project because each project is different. You may decide to use the traditional Waterfall approach or an Agile methodology to manage your project, and this decision will impact how your plan. The Waterfall approach is a fairly fixed process, with a set sequence of activities that the project manager drives.

An Agile approach, on the other hand, is designed to be more flexible, with shorter sprints that allow the team to work iteratively and adjust the product as it’s developed. Agile approaches tend to be used with software and technology projects that require frequent testing and feedback. Use a traditional approach when you want to stick to the original scope of the project and need to control the outcomes.

Don’t rush the planning phase, which is when you will be integrating all the knowledge management areas into a cohesive, comprehensive plan. The beginning of this stage is the most difficult part and it takes time to do it right.

Working with your team, define and refine the project’s objectives, determine the methods you’ll use to achieve those objectives, identify the deliverables and the tasks to achieve those deliverables, specify the baselines of the project plan, and schedule and write all the necessary supporting documents.

This doesn’t happen all at once. When you review the outline, you’ll discover other options for completing the project, adjust the resources and schedule, and receive feedback from your stakeholders. The project planning process actually involves two kinds of processes: core processes and facilitating processes.

Core processes follow a set sequence, regardless of the project. They include the following:

  • Scope Defining and Planning: Identify the deliverables and requirements of the project.

  • Activity Defining, Planning, and Sequencing: Break down the deliverables and requirements into activities or tasks and estimate the time for each, as well as the sequence in which they must be completed.

  • Resource Planning: Identify the people, equipment, facilities, and materials needed for the activities.

  • Cost Estimating and Budgeting: Estimate the amount of money you need, based on staffing or external vendors, the materials and goods required, and any other expenses.

  • Schedule Developing: Create the project schedule, based on the sequence of tasks, your budget, and your resources.

  • Project Plan Developing: Finalize the plan and all supporting documents for formal approval.

The facilitating processes depend on the project and how the core processes interact. They can follow any sequence in your project. Facilitating processes include the following:

  • Organizational Planning: Determine the roles for each of your team members, assign them responsibilities, and acquire additional staff as needed. This process may include the work breakdown structure.

  • Quality Planning: Establish the quality assurance standards and criteria for the project, and how you will ensure that you meet them.

  • Risk Management Planning: Identify any risks to the project, consider their probability and impact (quantitative risk analysis), prioritize their impact (qualitative risk analysis), and develop a plan to minimize or reduce those risks.

  • Procuring and Solicitation Planning: Decide what goods and services you need to acquire for the project, and identify potential vendors.

  • Communication Planning: Establish how and what you will communicate to stakeholders, the project sponsor, your team, and any others with an interest in the project.

Another critical element of communication is to not only involve your team in the planning phase but maintain that communication throughout. Although you will be the main author for the plan, use your team to help divide and conquer key aspects. Here are some other communication considerations:

  • How well do we understand the objective?

  • Has our organization or team tackled similar projects in the past?

  • How well did it go? What were the successes and lessons learned?

  • What factors will impact the schedule?

  • Are there dates when key resources and staff are unavailable? Will the office be closed during the project?

  • How will you gather feedback? Will you have to present progress to stakeholders in formal or informal meetings?

  • What tools will you use to communicate? Are there preferred online project planning tools?

  • How will we explain your progress to stakeholders? What will we do if they don’t understand?


How Long Does Project Planning Take?

Don’t assume that there isn’t enough time to prepare a plan. The success of your project depends on a sound and complete plan. However, there is no typical time frame for project planning. Because each project and team is different, the amount of time it takes to develop the plan will vary.

The best way to estimate how long the planning process will take is to look at how long it has taken to plan similar projects at your organization. Talk to others who were involved in similar projects, both project managers and team members. Ask them how long it took and what obstacles they encountered, and seek tips for being efficient in your process.


What Are the Steps for Planning a Project?

Planning a project can seem overwhelming. But, following these steps will ensure you have a plan that successfully guides your project, keeps everyone working toward the same goal, and guarantees you meet your objectives.

 

8 Planning Steps

Step One: Define the Project Goals, Objectives, and Scope

The first phase of the project management process ends with a project charter and concept proposal. In the planning phase of the project management process, you use those outputs to articulate and define precisely what you want to accomplish. Start by asking these questions:

  • What needs to be completed?

  • What product or service will be delivered?

  • What does the client expect? What does the client need?

  • What is the deadline?

  • What are the reasons, events, or factors for that deadline?

The answers will help you capture your big-picture goals for the project. Based on the rough expectations and timeline you uncover with these initial questions, you’ll be able to list basic steps. Now that you’ve set some goals, it’s time to put priorities around those expectations.

To get more clarity for your objectives, spend time with the project stakeholders to understand their needs, expectations, deliverables, and deadlines. Use one-on-one meetings, interviews, workshops, and focus groups to uncover the requirements or functionality that offer real benefits. Remember that stakeholders are everyone who is affected by the product or service, including clients, the project sponsor, the project manager, the project team, and the customers who are the end-users.

Also, identify the responsibility of the developer and the user by determining the need that your project is addressing and how you will educate users about the product. Finally, identify the project’s supporters within your organization. Use their feedback to ensure that the project plan aligns with the company’s strategic and organizational goals.

Think of the objectives as articulating the “reason to be” for the project. These objectives may include acquiring or maintaining your market share, growing sales or profits, or improving efficiency. While your goals may be broad, the objectives must be specific and measurable. Refine project objectives by providing quantifiable definitions (i.e., schedule, cost, quality) for qualitative or subjective terms. Consider the S.M.A.R.T. framework to clearly identify, define, and scrutinize each objective.

By clarifying and quantifying the goals and objectives, you can understand and define the project’s scope and value. Now you’re ready to write a scope statement for the project that covers the following elements:

  • Business Needs: A high-level summary that outlines the benefits and puts this project in context for stakeholders and other decision makers in your organization

  • Objectives: Specifically what the team will do

  • Roles and Responsibilities: Who owns the project, who is on the project team, and what role each member plays

  • Requirements: Qualitative and quantitative descriptions of the expectations of the stakeholders

  • Deliverables: The tangible and measurable work products that you will produce

  • Milestones: Dates you establish for key deliverables

  • Quality Standards: The acceptance criteria your deliverables must meet, including who is responsible for signing off on the acceptance criteria

  • Exclusions: Any products or services that you will not create as part of this project

The outcome of this work is a clear communication tool that documents the project goals and the effort required to meet them. You can leverage this information to create a product breakdown structure (PBS) that defines the project outcome clearly so the sponsor and stakeholders can agree on your direction. The document also feeds into the work breakdown structure that you will soon develop.

Step Two: Break Down the Project into Tasks

With your scope document in hand, you can now identify the activities and tasks needed to create the deliverables. For every project, the activities will be different, but you can use previous project plans to guide what you might need for your project.

At this point, you will begin to break down the larger project into smaller sections. Work with your team to identify the activities, tasks, and processes needed to fulfill your requirements and objectives. For each task, identify the amount of effort it will take to complete the task and who will do the work. Then, group related tasks into work packages, which are the smallest unit of work in a project.

By spelling out the breakdown of the project in this way, you are creating your work breakdown structure (WBS) — a structured listing of the work and end items that serves as the basis for cost accounts, budgets, schedules, and project life-cycle cost estimates. The WBS is accompanied by the WBS dictionary, which describes every component of the WBS, including milestones, deliverables, scope, and activities. These downloadable templates can help you create your own WBS.

As you create the network of tasks and the WBS, you will see which tasks are dependent upon others and which schedules are interrelated. You can link the tasks based on dependencies, to develop the critical path, or network activity diagram, which helps you identify the tasks necessary to complete your project as scoped. Additionally, the critical path method helps you stay on track throughout your project.

Step Three: Map Out the Resources

Now that you have the tasks mapped out, it’s time to identify the resources you need to complete the work. Identify the necessary facilities, equipment, supplies, raw materials, staffing, and special skills for each task and deliverable. These activities form the core process of resource planning, including who will do what work, when will they do it, and how much will it cost. Make sure to include the following resources in your analysis:

  • Staffing: Determine the staff and skills available in house, and identify what skills you’ll need to procure from outside vendors and subcontractors.

  • Costs and Budget: Estimate the cost of each task, depending on the resources the task will consume. The total of those budgeted costs leads to the total project cost, which is incurred upon the completion of the project.

  • Time: Estimate how much resource time will be spent to complete each task or deliverable. Since you have to estimate the duration, consider weighing your estimates with optimistic, normal, or pessimistic variables.

  • Resource Constraints: As you estimate and assign resources, consider how much time each person can realistically devote to the project or whether you can procure all the materials and budget you need.

One of the challenges of project planning is managing the uncertainty when you estimate resources. While the critical path method helps you organize tasks, the critical chain method builds buffers into your plan so you can anticipate potential delays.  

Step Four: Outline Your Plan and Schedule

Armed with the information about the tasks and resources, you can draft an outline of your project plan and create the sequence of events that will build your schedule. The outline starts with the questions you have addressed in your project planning, including:

  • Who will do the work (staffing)?

  • What work will they do (goals, objectives, deliverables)?

  • When should it be accomplished (project deadline)?

  • How will it be done (tasks and work breakdown structure)?

Your draft plan will map out the schedule of activities, the dependencies among them, the sequence in which they will be implemented, and how resources will be allocated at each stage. At a basic level, the schedule is a timeline of all the tasks and resource estimates.

In addition to showing the amount of effort and resources needed to complete each task, the project schedule should help you balance the amount of resources with the duration of the task or project. If one task takes longer than you estimated or requires more materials, the schedule will need to be updated so you can ensure you still meet your objectives.

Your team is a valuable resource that can help you develop an action plan for the project and provide feedback on your resource estimates. You can also consider a range of project management tools, many of which are available online, including:

  • Gantt Charts and Schedules: A Gantt chart is a visual timeline that generally employs horizontal bars that illustrate each task and identify at what point it appears on the schedule. The completed chart shows the entire project in one simple view. Online Gantt chart tools can show task dependencies, key milestones, and the critical path of your project. Learn all about online Gantt chart software here.

  • Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT): A PERT chart is a graphic illustration of a project that depicts a network diagram or network model. The diagram consists of numbered nodes representing events that are linked by directional lines, or vectors, that symbolize tasks and the sequence of the tasks.

  • Graphical Evaluation and Review (GERT): GERT charts, like PERT charts, depict network models. GERT charts also allow loops between tasks, which you can use to demonstrate more possibilities between activities and events.

  • Decision-Event-Logic-Time-Activity (DELTA): A DELTA chart displays the project as a flow chart by using five elements — decision boxes, event boxes, logic boxes, time arrows, and activity boxes.

Online project management software, tools, and templates can help you get started quickly, along with providing real-time updates as you manage the project and delivery dates, and calculate slack time, down time, and float time. Additionally, templates can help you craft the project plan outline and the detailed work plan that you will provide stakeholders for review.

In addition to creating a schedule of the tasks, you should also identify what factors that determine when a task is completed and who has the authority to sign off. Clarify what quality standards must be met for any deliverable, what happens if the deliverable falls below that standard, and who manages that process.

Step Five: Review and Refine Your Plan

Once the plan is drafted, gather feedback to help refine and finalize the work plan. Present and explain the project plan to stakeholders and discuss the key elements. Be flexible in how you present the plan. Some stakeholders may prefer to see workflow charts or budgets. Others may want an executive summary with bullet points listing deliverables, resources, and milestones.

Use your presentation as an opportunity to ask tough questions that will test the assumptions of your plan and ensure that you will be successful in meeting their expectations. Request feedback on the process, politics, and risks, and consider asking the following questions:

  • Are the estimates, assumptions, and constraints for budget, resources, and schedule realistic?

  • What are the preferred options for dealing with unrealistic estimates: renegotiating the schedule, adding additional resources, reducing the scope, etc.?

  • Are the standards for quality in the project realistic or overly ambitious?

  • Are there additional pressures that accelerate how quickly the project needs to be completed?

  • What internal factors have changed that could affect the resources or schedule?

  • What external factors have changed that could affect the project?

  • What is the best way to measure and report on actual progress?

  • Is there a stakeholder that needs to be considered who is not on the list? (A president, division director, supplier, customer, etc.?)

  • Is there anything else that would prevent the project from being successful?

Some issues and project risks that could surface in these conversations include:

  • The time, staffing, and cost estimates are too optimistic.

  • The roles and responsibilities are unclear.

  • No stakeholder input has been obtained.

  • Changing requirements or new requirements have emerged.

  • There is a lack of organizational commitment to the project, and there is competition for a share of company resources.

At this point in your project planning process, consider your risk management plans, specifying any contingency plans and mitigation strategies. The cousin to risk management plans are change control procedures. When you need to change your plans, you need to have formal procedures and mechanics that specify who is responsible for making those decisions and what information is required.

Another topic to discuss with stakeholders and your team deals with how you will formulate and document policies and guidelines during the execution of the project. During the day-to-day work, a myriad of decisions will be made. Establish how you will track these, which ones need to be communicated to stakeholders and team members, and any formal process for sharing these decisions.

With all this feedback in hand, you can refine the plan based on the realities and risks you’ve uncovered during the review process and be confident that your final plan will achieve its goals and fulfill your stakeholders’ expectations.

Step Six: Write the Full Project Plan

You’ve got all the information you need, the feedback to refine the plans, and buy-in from your team. Now, it’s time to assemble the final plan.

Your final plan will, first and foremost, focus on the performance measurement baseline. That is, the point of reference that serves as the north star for the entire project. This baseline is a combination of the following elements:

  • Scope Baseline: The approved version of the scope statement, work breakdown structure, and WBS dictionary

  • Cost Baseline: The approved spending plan or time-phased budget that includes all the costs by time period and money set aside to respond to risks

  • Schedule Baseline: The fixed project schedule that has been approved by project stakeholders

These baselines are fixed standards for the project and reflect all the hard work of defining scope, schedule, costs, staffing, deliverables, resources, quality, risk management, and more. They must be fully defined and documented before you can begin the project.

Once they are approved, they become the official plans for your project and can only be changed through the approved change control and management process. The final project plan also includes the baseline management plans and the supporting plans for core and facilitating processes previously mentioned.

In addition to the baseline and management plans, you’ll need to include all the supporting documents that walk your stakeholders, clients, and team through the project. Use this checklist to make sure you’ve included everything required. Need help assembling your plan? Here are some templates you can use.

 

Project Plan Checklist

Project Plan Checklist

The final plan can seem like an overwhelming document. Here are some formatting and presentation tips to ensure that your plan is readable and engaging:

  • Use a clear outline and clear section titles.

  • Use consistent formatting for titles, headers, bullets, and notes.

  • Include all the pertinent project information, including the name of the project manager, the title of the project, the client name, key stakeholders, and the project sponsor.

  • Provide a clear executive summary.

  • Use a Gantt chart to illustrate the schedule, dependencies, or other key milestones.

  • Highlight dependencies and use headers and bullets to break out deliverables and milestones.

  • Identify which team or team member is responsible for each task.

  • Clearly show the duration of each task.

  • List the related resources (staff, time, cost, materials) for each task.

  • Add notes to tasks that might seem confusing or unclear. (Even better, revise the wording of the task, so it’s clear to all readers.)

  • Include the resources allocated for each task.

  • Use your client’s logo and your company’s logo for external projects.

  • If you have other company branding (fonts, tag lines, etc.), use where relevant.

  • Ask a team member to review the plan for grammar,spelling errors, and typos.

Once all the plans are assembled, it’s time to get final approval from your client and other stakeholders. Good communication during the planning process and a willingness to answer questions up front will help you avoid surprises at this late stage.

Step Seven: Launch Your Project

The plan is approved, so you can publish and share it with your team. Schedule a kickoff meeting to walk them through the project, making sure everyone has read the plan and is ready to dig in. Be ready to answer any questions and set an effective leadership tone. A strong start will help you get across the finish line with an enthusiastic team and high morale.

Step Eight: Monitor and Review Your Progress

Project planning isn’t finished until the project is finished. You will need to monitor progress and project scope, compare it to the baselines, and manage any changes. No plan is perfect, so be prepared to adjust the plan and making critical decisions as issues arise.

During the project planning phase, you put time into the core and facilitating processes. Now you focus on change management, quality control, and governance to keep everything running smoothly. You should regularly analyze the progress by comparing it to baseline plans. Measuring project performance and progress is called earned value management (EVM). EVM takes project tracking a step further and helps you evaluate your progress more accurately.

Another area to monitor is project risks. Keep a log that identifies all the risks you’ve anticipated and the plans for preventing or addressing those risks. Review the risk log regularly to see what’s happened, any new risks that may occur, and what is no longer at risk.

As project manager, you should document everything in this phase. Record changes that go through the change management process, as well as smaller factors that can shift the deliverables on your project. These documents can be the basis for your communication with team members, stakeholders, and clients. They can also serve as part of the archive for the project to be used by another project manager the next time a similar project arises.

Managing successful projects is hard. But you’ve put a lot of hard work into building this plan, so enjoy the parts that go well, be enthusiastic about leading your team when tough calls have to be made, and continue to inspire creativity as the project unfolds.


What Are the Challenges in Project Planning?

You won’t be able to anticipate every factor, risk, or variable that bubbles up during the project. The customer review and feedback cycle may be slower than you had estimated, or your company may face unexpected budget cuts. There’s always a level of uncertainty in any project environment. But you can prepare for the unexpected by building flexibility and strong change control and approval workflows into your planning process.

Avoid simply thinking that a plan is unnecessary. Maybe the project seems small so you think your team can wing it. Or, maybe there are so many variables and uncertainties that it doesn’t seem worth the effort to plan. Sometimes, stakeholders will skip the project plan, so they can just get started on the work.

Project planning is inherently uncertain because you will never have all the information you need. You will have to make assumptions about resources and plan for certain kinds of risks. But the degree of uncertainty in a project tends to be inversely proportionate to the information at hand. While you can’t be precise about the variables that affect your assumptions, you can plan for several broad categories of variables and risks, including marketplace competition, changing regulations, and evolutions in technology.

The Challenges of Poor Communication

Poor communication leads to misunderstandings, failure to meet quality standards, work that has to be redone, or even canceled projects. Poor communication starts in several places:

  • Unclear roles and responsibilities

  • A lack of stakeholder input

  • A lack of stakeholder approval if needs or objectives are not understood

  • Stakeholders changing or adding requirements after the project has started

Communication, from asking questions to sharing project updates and getting stakeholder buy-in, is critical to the success of your plan. Additionally, managing stakeholder input is crucial to the continued success of the project.

Make sure you ask enough questions to understand what your clients and stakeholders need, provide enough information to ensure that you are on the right track, and give them options up front to reduce the likelihood of requested scope changes after the project is underway.


Improve Project Planning with Smartsheet for Project Management

Empower your people to go above and beyond with a flexible platform designed to match the needs of your team — and adapt as those needs change. 

The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed. 

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.

 

 

 

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