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Every project tells a story about its goals, team, timing, and deliverables - and it requires detailed project planning and management to get the story right. Some of those stories are short and to the point while others are epic novels rife with twists and turns. No matter the length or level of drama, every story is based on a story arc or an outline--or as we call it in the project management world, a project plan.
Every project tells a story about its goals, team, timing, and deliverables.
What is project planning?
Project planning is the process of establishing the scope, defining the objectives and steps to obtain them. It is one of the most important of the processes that make up project management. The output of the project planning process is a project management plan.
What's a project plan?
A project plan, also known as a project management plan is a document that contains a project scope and objective. It is most commonly represented in the form of a Gantt chart, to make it easy to communicate to stakeholders.
Learning how to develop a project plan doesn’t need to be complicated. Keep reading to learn what project planning steps to follow to create a project plan that your team will love.
How to write a project plan in 10 simple steps:
- Step One: Understand the scope and value of your project plan
- Step Two: Conduct extensive research
- Step Three: Ask the tough questions
- Step Four: Create your project plan outline
- Step Five: Talk with your team
- Step Six: Write your full project plan
- Step Seven: Execute your plan in TeamGantt
- Step Eight: Publish your plan
- Step Nine: Share your plan with the team and make sure they read it!
- Step Ten: Prepare to keep planning
In a major time crunch? Watch our video: how to create a project plan in 5 easy steps.
Understand the scope & value of your project
At its core, a project plan defines your approach and the process your team will use to manage the project according to scope. Every project needs a plan; not only does it go a long way toward keeping teams honest in terms of scope and deadlines, a plan communicates vital information to all project stakeholders. If you approach it as something more than a dry document and communicate that aspect of it differently to everyone involved, it can and will be seen as integral to your project’s success. The fact is, a plan is more than dates. It’s the story of your project and you don’t want it to be a tall tale! Like any well written story, there are components that make it good. In fact, any solid plan should answer these questions:
- What are the major deliverables?
- How will we get to those deliverables and the deadline?
- Who is on the project team and what role will they play in those deliverables?
- When will the team meet milestones, and when will other members of the team play a role in contributing to or providing feedback on those deliverables?
If your plan answers those questions and educates your team and clients on the project logistics, you’re creating a viable, strategic game plan for your project. Feel like you’ve written a work of fiction? Use those questions as a gut check after you’ve created your plan, and keep reading. There are a few steps you can take to ensure that your project plan goes down in history for being well-written and on target.
At its core, a project plan defines your approach and the process your team will use to manage the project to scope.
As soon as you’ve agreed on a project scope, someone will inevitably ask you for a project plan. Before you dive into writing a project plan, take heed, friends! While a plan is fairly easy to construct, remind everyone involved that the journey of creating a plan does not consist of you, the project manager, sitting down and writing up your approach and dumping it into your project planning tool of choice. In fact, that’s the opposite of how you should handle it.
A solid plan is created after you’ve done your research about the team, your clients, and your project and have determined all of the factors that will make that plan change. That’s right—you should build a plan with inevitable changes or delays in mind. Make sure that you’ve done your due diligence by asking about the factors that could delay your project, but go beyond that; good project managers plan for the unplanned.
They do this by devising an optimal route through the project, with contingencies and backups in place and ready to go. If you have a solid construct for why you built a plan a certain way, you’ll be able to roll with the changes and quickly communicate time delays and impacts.
As the author, a proud project manager may look upon his or her masterfully crafted plan as a work of art that transcends the ages—an elegant response to a complex challenge. A good project plan is worth being proud of because it represents the confluence of so many factors: project scope, professional experience, research, process knowledge, and a ton of input from clients and team members.
That may sound like a lot for what seems to be a simple document, but as the author, just focus on writing one “sentence” at a time and it will all come together. If you want to make a plan that reads like a dream as opposed to the latest thriller, you can take specific project planning steps to make sure it is well thought-out and thoroughly sold to your team and clients.
A solid project plan is created after you’ve done your research.
Start With Research
Before you start creating a project plan, you have to stop yourself and make sure you know all of the facts. Take a deep breath, then dive into the documents and communications relevant to the project. Print the scope of work and all details that come along with it (maybe an RFP or notes from sales calls or meetings with your client team) and read them end to end. Be thorough. Understand the details and ask thoughtful questions before you commit to anything. A good project manager is well-informed and methodical in the way he or she decides to write a project plan. At a minimum, you’ll be responsible for possessing a thorough understanding of:
- The goals of the project
- Your client’s needs and expectations
- The makeup of your client team and their decision making process (i.e. How they’ll review and approve your team’s work), which might answer:
- Who is the Project Sponsor and how available is he or she?
- Who is the PM and will he or she plan on being in constant contact with you (they need to be)
- Who are the additional stakeholders your team should be aware of?
Set time aside with your client to ask some tough questions about process, organizational politics, and risks.
Ask the tough questions
In addition to all of your questions about your client team and their expectations, set some time aside with your main client contact and ask them some tough questions about process, organizational politics, and general risks before creating a project plan. Doing so will not only convey that your team has the experience to handle any type of difficult personalities or situation, it shows that you care about the project and want it to run smoothly from the start.
Questions that may impact a project plan:
- Has your team discussed how you will gather feedback?
- Who is the final sign off? Or, who owns the project?
- Is there a stakeholder we need to consider who is not on your list? (A president, dean, the boss’s wife?)
- What is the project deadline? What are the factors or events that are calling for that date? (a meeting, an ad campaign, an event?)
- Are there any dates when you will be closed or not available?
- Will there be any meetings or points in the project where you’ll want us to present on the current project status to a larger group (i.e a board meeting)?
- Has your team been through a project like this in the past?
- How did it go?
- Is there anything that would prevent the project from being successful?
- Is there a preferred mode of communication and online project planning tools?
- Are there any points in the process that some stakeholders might not understand that we can explain?
Write Your Manuscript (aka project plan outline)
After getting the answers you need, take some time to think about the responses in in light of the project goals and how your team might approach a similar project. If you’re at a loss for where to start, take a look at the questions at the beginning of this chapter to outline the Who, What, When, and How of the project. Think about the tasks that are outlined in the scope of work and try to come up with a project planning and management approach by sketching something very high-level on paper. Yes, paper. All you need is a calendar to check dates.
A first sketch can be very rough and might look something like a Work Breakdown Structure, as noted in Chapter Two. Make sure your sketch includes
- Deliverables and the tasks taken to create them
- Your client’s approval process
- Timeframes associated with tasks/deliverables
- Ideas on resources needed for tasks/deliverables
- A list of the assumptions you’re making in the plan
- A list of absolutes as they relate to the project budget and/or deadlines
Doing this will help you to organize your thoughts, formulate what might work for the project, and then transform everything into a discussion. Take this time to build a simple project plan outline- it doesn't have to have all the details just yet. It may seem like a lot, but it all leads to building a solid, sustainable plan.
Talk To Your Team
If you’ve read Chapters One and Two, you know that project managers need to be in constant communication with their teams. Starting a project must begin with clear communication of the project goals and the effort required to meet them. This comes with understanding the fact that a project manager can’t be the only one writing a project plan. Sure, you could try--but if you’re interested in team buy-in, you won’t. The reason you won’t is because you don’t want to put yourself or your team in an awkward position by not coming to a consensus on the approach before presenting it to your client. Doing that would be like stabbing every single one of your co-workers in the back. Not so good for the old reputation.
Starting a project must begin with clear communication of the project goals and the effort required to meet them.
It’s also great to utilize the super-smart folks surrounding you to get their input on how the team can complete the tasks at hand without killing the budget and the team’s morale. As a project manager, you can decide on Waterfall or Agile approaches, but when it comes down to it you need to know that the team can realistically execute the plan.
You can also use your project plan review time to question your own thinking and push the team to take a new approach to the work. For instance, if you’re working on a website design, can designers start creating visual concepts while the wireframes are being developed? Will it make sense for this project and for the team? Can you have two resources working on the same task at once?
Running ideas by the team and having an open dialogue about the approach cannot only help you with building a project plan, it’s also a big help in getting everyone to think about the project in the same terms. This type of buy-in and communication builds trust on a team and gets people excited about working together to solve a goal. It can work wonders for the greater good of your team and your project.
Write your project plan
When you’ve got all the info you need and you’ve spoken to all parties, you should feel more than comfortable enough to put together a rock solid project plan using whatever tool works for you (Ahem, TeamGantt works nicely for a lot of happy customers). Any good online project planning tool will help you to formalize your thoughts and lay them out in a consistent, readable way.
Make it Readable
There is no doubt that reading a project plan can be...boring. So, in order to stop your dear readers from skimming your work of art, use some formatting skills to make tasks, durations, milestones and dates are crystal clear. Try to make a simple project plan - the more straightforward and easier to read it is - the better. No matter what tool you’re using, you should include these features:
- Include all pertinent project info:
- Client Name, Project Name
- Version Number, Delivery Date
- Break out milestones and deliverables in sections by creating headers and indenting subsequent tasks (reading one long list of tasks is really monotonous and can be mind numbing even to the best of us)
- Call out which team is responsible for each task (example: “CLIENT: Provide feedback”)
- Add resources responsible to each task so there is no confusion about who is responsible for what.
- Be sure to show durations of tasks clearly. Each task should have a start and an end date.
- Add notes to tasks that might seem confusing, or need explanation. It never hurts to add detail!
- Call out project dependencies. These are important when you’re planning for the risk of delays.
- Include your company’s logo and your client’s logo if you’re feeling fancy.
- Use your company’s branded fonts if you’re feeling really fancy.
Within TeamGantts resource management software, you can assign who's responsible to each task so there is no confusion about who is responsible for what.
In addition to all of this, you should be as flexible as possible when it comes to how your project plan is presented. There is no absolute when it comes to how you represent your plan as long as you and your team understand what goes into one. Remember, people absorb information differently; while some people prefer a list-view, others might prefer to see a calendar, or even a gantt chart. You can make all of those variations work if you’ve taken the steps to create a solid plan. If your team currently prefers the traditional excel gantt chart, and isn’t quite ready to use TeamGantt just yet, try our free excel template.
You should be as flexible as possible when it comes to how your plan is presented.
Planning with TeamGantt
TeamGantt, an online project planning tool, gives you the ability to quickly and easily build a project plan using most of the tips listed above, and makes it even easier to adjust using a simple drag and drop feature. Creating a gantt chart based on the steps you’ve outlined for your team is easy and kind of fun. Plus, once you have created your project, you can have peace of mind knowing that you thought ahead and have a plan to guide you along as you go, and create a Gantt chart for completely free. Try it out!
Publish Your Plan
You’re almost finished! You’ve done your research, sketched your approach, discussed it with your team, and built your formal project plan. Do yourself one quick favor and ask someone on your team to review it before you hand it over to your clients. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being a project manager and delivering a plan with an error—like an incorrect date. It’ll take someone 10 minutes and you’ll have peace of mind.
Make Sure your team reads and engages with your project plan
After you’ve put all of that work into creating this important document, you want to make sure that it has actually been reviewed. When you’re delivering your project plan, make sure you provide a summary of it in prose format. A brief message that covers the overall methodology, resources, assumptions, deadlines, and related review times will help you to convey what the project plan means to the project and to everyone involved.
Don’t be bashful about it: explain the thought that has gone into the process of building the project plan, and open it up for discussion. It can be good to set up a call to review the plan line by line with a client. This ensures that your client will understand the process, and what each step in the plan means. Sure, you might have to explain it a few more times, but at least you’re making the effort to help establish good project planning standards across the board and educate your clients on how your team works. And again, it shows that you care.
Prepare to keep planning
Sometimes projects are smooth and alarmingly easy to manage, and sometimes they are a complete nightmare that wakes you up at 3 a.m. every other night (it happens). Regardless, plans will change. With a good team and a clear scope of work, you’re on your way to making a solid plan that is manageable and well-thought out. In the end, having a solid plan is your best defense against project chaos.
If you’re an easygoing project manager who can adapt your approach and your plan to go with the flow while calling out the appropriate risks, you’ll find yourself happy. Otherwise, the daily changes will cloud your vision and you’ll focus on things that won’t help your team, your client, or the project. And remember: project managers can have fun too! So pick up your project scope, dig into your own research, and start writing your next masterpiece.
What to read next:
TAMING THE SCOPE CREEP
It’s your job as the project manager to act as both the project gatekeeper and the cheerleader, to monitor, manage, and report on its progress, and to nobly guard your estimate, scope, and timeline with courage and diplomacy.
Complete list of Chapters
- Chapter 1:
The Good Project Manager
- Chapter 2:
What is Project Management?
- Chapter 3:
Project Management Methodologies
- Chapter 4:
The Dark Art Of Project Estimation
- Chapter 5:
Writing and Selling a Masterful Project Plan
- Chapter 6:
Taming The Scope Creep
- Chapter 7:
If They Expect A Unicorn, It’s Your Fault
- Chapter 8:
Managing Project, Helping Clients
- Chapter 9:
How To Put ‘Me’ In Team
- Chapter 10:
Master The Art And Science Of Meetings
- Chapter 11:
Beyond 40 Hours: Continuous PM Learning
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