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Guide to Project Management
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Chapter 5

How to Write a Good Project Plan

by Brett Harned

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.

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What is project planning?

Project planning is the process of establishing the scope and defining the objectives and steps to attain 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 is 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 approach to follow to create a project plan that your team will love.

How to write a project plan:

In a major time crunch? Watch our video: How to Plan a Project.

1. Understand the scope and 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. A project 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.

2. Conduct extensive research

Before you start creating a project plan, make sure you know all of the facts. Dive into the documents and communications relevant to the project. Go over the scope of work and related documents (maybe an RFP or notes from sales calls or meetings with your client team). 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 be 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.

3. 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 convey that your team has the experience to handle any type of difficult personalities or situation and that you care about the success of the project 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 spouse?)
  • 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?

4. Create your project plan outline

After getting the answers you need, take some time to think about the responses 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 creating a high-level outline. All you need is a calendar to check dates.

A first outline can be very rough and might look something like a work breakdown structure, as noted in Chapter 4. Make sure your outline 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

Side Note: There will always be multiple ways to execute the work you’re planning, and it’s easy to focus on what the end product will look like. Don’t go there. Instead, focus on the mechanics of how it will happen. Getting tied up in the execution will only confuse you and likely make you feel unimpressed by the final product because it’s not what you envisioned. Remind yourself: You’re there to plan and guide the project, not create it.

A project outline 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. Doing so lays the foundations for a solid, sustainable project plan.

5. Talk with your team

If you’ve read Chapters 1 and 2, 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 coworkers in the back. Not so good for the old reputation.

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.

6. Write and schedule your full 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 schedule 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 formalize your thoughts and lay them out in a consistent, readable way.

Make it readable

To make your project plan readable, ensure 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. (e.g., “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 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 TeamGantt's 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 yet, try our free Excel template.

You should be as flexible as possible when it comes to how your plan is presented.

7. Execute your plan in 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. Try it out, and create a gantt chart for completely free!

8. Publish your plan

You’re almost finished! You’ve done your research, outlined 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.

9. Share your plan with the team and make sure they read it!

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 short 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.

10. Prepare to keep planning

Some projects are smooth and easy to manage, and others 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. Having a solid project 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.

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