You want to know how to make a project plan that’s useful and realistic—and in this post, I provide the background, examples, checklist, and step-by-step instructions to help you do exactly that.
What we’ll cover in this project plan guide:
- Project Planning Basics (What is a project plan? Why does it matter?)
- Simple Project Plan Example
- Step-By-Step Guide To Creating A Project Plan
- Project Plan Checklist Infographic
By the end of this post, you’ll know how to write a project plan, what to include, and how to make it as useful as possible in your projects.
What Is A Project Plan?
A project plan is a document, often presented as a Gantt chart, that shows each step to take a project from A to B. It serves as a roadmap that shows the project phases, key project activities and their start and end dates, dependencies between project tasks, and project milestones.
Project plans can be as simple as a scribble on the back of a napkin or a few lines in Excel, but it’s usually presented as a Gantt chart, made in Microsoft Project or a similar alternative planning tool.
What Should A Project Plan Include?
Here’s what a project plan typically includes:
- phases of a project
- activities or tasks in each phase
- task start and end dates
- interdependencies between tasks
Why Project Planning Still Matters
Once the pride of project managers everywhere, the humble project plan has got itself a bit of a bad reputation. If you’re asking yourself,
Does a project plan even matter in this post-waterfall era of agile-everything?
The answer is still yes.
After all, clients still want answers for questions like,
- When is the project going to be delivered?
- How much will it cost?
- What exactly will be delivered?
- How will it be delivered?
If you opt for the No Project Plan Alternative, it’s difficult to answer these seemingly basic project management questions. The reality is that clients need to know what they’re getting, when, and for how much before signing off. And it’s not just for clients—as a project manager, you’ll need that project plan to ascertain if the project is on track. You can’t know unless you’ve got something to measure against.
Even so, there are still plenty of people who’d say, “But aren’t project plans for complex IT projects just a waste of time?” They argue that project plans don’t reflect the reality of the tasks at hand, that they artificially constrain your teams from self-optimizing, and that they’re perpetually out of date due to constant changes.
These arguments do bring up an important point about project plans. Fast-paced industries with complex projects (such as digital and IT) are demanding a new approach to project planning. Instead of a static document, our project plans need to come to life—the best project plans today are ones that are accessible, readily understandable for a wide variety of users, and highly adaptable.
When done well, project plans bring many benefits to your projects. Find below 7 reasons why you shouldn’t give up on project plans just yet.
7 Reasons Why A Project Plan Matters
Here are seven reasons why project plans are probably the single most important piece of project documentation.
A project plan:
- Clarifies the process and activities that will lead to the project’s outputs and deliverables
- Gives you information that enables you to estimate properly and define a project’s outputs and project scope
- Enables you to visualise the entire project and see the interdependencies between tasks
- Helps you show who does what task, when and forecast your resource requirements
- Provides milestones for tracking project progress (and dates for client approvals)
- Enables you to baseline and track your project progress properly
- Enables the agreement of the all-important live date
Before You Start Your Project Plan
Before you dive in, remember these important points about project plans:
- A project plan should be much more than a roadmap; to give a client a complete view of a project, it should be combined with an estimate and a statement of work too.
- Proper project planning isn’t difficult, but it does takes time. And it’s not a one-time thing. You create a plan and then continually refine it.
- Get more out of your project plan by presenting it. Don’t waste all of your effort making something that only you’ll see. Get more out of it by turning it into a presentation for clients so that they can better understand the limitations and scope of the work. It’ll also help them understand if the proposed work will deliver what they want and if the process you’re proposing will get the results they’re paying for.
The 5 Big Project Plan Brief Questions
Before you get started on creating the project plan, you need to understand the project’s brief—what you’re trying to achieve. Without understanding the project goal, there’s no way to deliver on it. At a minimum, you need to be clear on:
- Why? The project’s strategic goals.
- What? The activities (or process), outputs, and deliverables.
- When? The deadlines and dependencies.
- How? The process or methodology.
- Who? The client and their team of stakeholders.
Where do you get this information? Usually, a good project kickoff meeting will help us produce a proper project brief. If you don’t ultimately understand why you’re doing a project, you can end up barking up the wrong tree. You might not focus the resources on our project as well as you could. You might include in the process activities that are redundant, or you might produce some outputs which aren’t useful.
Once you’re clear on the Why, What, When, How, and Who of a project, you can start putting together your project plan. Let’s start with a simple example of a project plan below.
Simple Project Plan Example: Making A Cake
Below is a simple project plan showing four phases of a rather laborious project we’ve concocted to make a cake. The project plan shows the process to get from our current state (no cake) to our desired future state (eating cake). It shows us how long the process will take, and the order of the steps to follow to produce the cake properly.
The project plan shows:
- the 4 phases of the project (in bold)
- each of the subtasks, with
- subtask durations
- start and finish dates
- milestones (the black diamonds)
Sadly, this project shows that no resources have been assigned against any of the tasks so we’ve still got no one to actually make the cake; we’ll need to find someone to do that! Finally, at the top of the image, you can see Microsoft Project also gives us a timeline overview so you can see a 50,000ft view summarising the project, the phases, milestones, and progress.
Here are a couple of other project planning software similar to this one that can help you create a project schedule:
Best for integrating with other tools
Best Microsoft Project alternative for resource management
Best Microsoft Project alternative for creating powerful Gantt charts
More features, nice visuals, and colorful boards with loads of information.
Best for viewing multiple projects on one Gantt chart
Best for project template capabilities
- Merlin Project
MS Project alternative for iOS with customization
- Tom's Planner
Collaborative Gantt chart software for teams who use MS Excel
How To Create The Perfect Project Plan In 10 Steps
Now let’s learn how to make a project plan—one that works in harmony with the way we manage projects in the 21st century.
We’ve created this project management plan checklist as a handy guide to creating a project plan for any project. Whether it’s a large cake, a large website platform, or even something non-digital, the principles and steps are the same.
Here’s an infographic summary of the steps. Read on for detailed explanations below.
Project Management Plan Checklist
In this project management plan checklist, we’ve simplified writing project plan to ten simple steps:
- Define your workflow
- Establish your planning horizon
- Break it down
- Ask, don’t guess
- Question when questioning
- Allow time for amends
- Plan for it not going to plan
- Finish well
- Post-project review & optimization
- Milestones & baselines
1. Define Your Workflow
Make a rough plan. Sketch out the overall flow of your project from initiation to completion. Map out each project phase and the likely activities and tasks required in each phase to complete the project.
When creating a project plan, the temptation can sometimes be to dive straight in to your project planning tool and add in all the tasks that need to get done. But before you add in specific tasks and project milestones, make sure you get the overall project structure right. This means first defining the workflow and what the different phases of work will be. If you get this bit right, it makes adding in specific tasks afterwards much more straightforward. At this stage, you’re not thinking about the actual tasks but how the tasks can be grouped together and the subsets of work within each phase.
2. Establish Your Planning Horizon
Are you being realistic? Work out how far you can accurately plan ahead. Plan in detail only for what you know, and make generous allowances for the rest of the project so you don’t over-commit yourself and your team.
A planning horizon is the is the amount of time that it’s feasible and viable to forecast into the into the future when preparing a project plan. In general, the length of the planning horizon is dictated by the degree of uncertainty in the external environment: the higher the uncertainty, shorter the planning horizon. It might not be at all feasible to plan out the whole project in detail, so plan in detail only for what you know, in the phase that you’re in, and make generous allowances for the rest of the project.
3. Break it down
Get into the detail. Break the project phases and tasks down into small sub-tasks, no longer than a few days each. It makes it easier to identify if any steps are missing, and easier for your team to estimate.
With the workflow established, the planning horizon defined, the high-level planning needs to start to become more detailed – it needs to be broken down into as many small sub-tasks as possible.
When you’re trying to accurately estimate how long a stage of the project is going to take, it’s important to split the tasks into as many constituent parts as possible. This means taking a task and defining all the sub-tasks that make the sum of that task, and for those tasks, doing the same so that each sub-sub-task can be assigned a specific timescale.
You might also create a work breakdown structure in this part of the project planning process.
4. Ask, don’t guess
Don’t make it up yourself. Give your team the context, a rough number to start with, and help them collaborate on estimating properly. Share assumptions, dependencies and work out who can do what, when.
When you’re under pressure to produce a project plan the easiest thing to do is just to guess how long each of these constituent parts might take to complete. That’s an option, but not a particularly clever one. Guessing will not only just give you a poor timing plan, it’ll give you no foundation for discussions with the client, and there’ll be no one else to share the blame if you guesstimate incorrectly.
5. Question When Questioning
When your team gives you an estimate, keep asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ to help them think through their approach, identify any efficiency opportunities and ensure sure you understand what’s included.
Beyond just asking someone to estimate how long something is going to take, you need to help them understand the context around their estimation. It’s no good just asking someone how long something will take in isolation. As they provide you with a project timeline estimate, you need to begin to interrogate how they came to the number. You’ll often find that as you begin to tease out the details of their estimation, they’ll begin to think of elements that they forgot to include and you’ll begin to get an understanding of dependencies around individual tasks.
6. Allow Time For Amends
Amends or changes to a project are inevitable. Make time for review and amend cycles, both internally and with clients and each key stakeholder.
One thing often missed in creating a project plan it’s allowing time for review and amend cycles. Amends or changes to a project are inevitable. Clients like to change things, and put their mark on a project. So no matter how closely you think you’re aligned with your client on a project, you need to allow for amends.
7. Plan For It Not Going To Plan
Projects never go to plan. Simply planning for the best case scenario or Plan A, isn’t good enough – you need to bake into Plan A, Plan, B and Plan C too.
Treading the line between optimism and pragmatism can be a difficult one when creating a project plan. Creating a project plan which gives the flexibility to mitigate against unforeseen change is critical to project success. Simply planning for the best case scenario or Plan A, isn’t good enough – you need to bake into Plan A, Plan, B and Plan C too.
8. Finish Well
Finishing projects properly can be a tricky business.Make a robust plan and allow ample time for the closing phases of your project as you load content, QA, test, get approvals, make DNS changes, and deploy to production.
Planning out the final phases of a live project can appear to be some of the most straightforward – finish it off and just get it live! However, the final stages of a project can be the most complex as dependencies are fully realised and the importance of having a proper plan in place to make sure everything can be deployed live and the project closed properly is important.
9. Post-Project Review & Optimization
Going live isn’t the end of the project. Build into the project plan a phase for post-live testing and analysis to measure performance, make any optimisations required, and take note of all lessons learned.
One of the most overlooked parts of a project is what happens when it’s gone live. In the euphoria and excitement of delivering a project, scheduling the effective close of a project is sometimes overlooked. All too often a project plan will end with a single milestone, the project live date. While a project might be live, it’s not over. In fact, the end of the first phase of a project should really just be signaling the start of the next phase.
10. Milestones & Baselines
Keep your project on track using milestones so that the project team and client are clear about key dates. Monitor progress using baselines to keep tracking your progress against your original project plan.
In order to help you keep track of whether or not your project is running on schedule, make sure your project is littered with milestones. When the project starts, everyone will be clear about what progress looks like, and it quickly becomes clear if the project is running behind schedule. If you’ll use a project management tool, you can usually set milestones easily using a drag-and-drop, and the project management software will use these to provide you quick insight about your project status as you go. Using milestones ensure that when the project starts, the project team and the client are clear about the key dates the project needs to hit to stay on track.
Not sure where to begin?
Becoming a confident, successful project manager is no simple feat—if you’re looking for a good place to start, our online course in Mastering Digital Project Management will light the way. In this 7-week course, you’ll gain access to relevant, practical expertise that will help you lead happy teams and deliver high-value projects in the digital world.
Whether you are formally trained as a project manager or an account manager who has been cast into the role, it’s your job—and privilege—to become a master in the art of managing projects. Our course will equip you with the fundamentals that will help you meet the daily challenges of project management, evolving as a professional in the big, wild world of DPM.
Sample Project Plan Template
You want to know how to create a project plan? Our project management expert team has created a sample project plan that’s way better than just a blank Gantt chart template (which you can find anywhere!).
The project plan is part of our resource hub in DPM Membership, and it’s great because:
- It includes 140 line items—pre-filled
- It’s already detailed as a website redesign project plan
- It comes with access to 50+ other expert-curated project templates, samples, agendas, ebooks, checklists, and more.
The sample project plan is created in Microsoft Project as a .mpp file, but you can upload it to web-based tools like Smartsheet, too. One of the easiest ways to learn how to make a project plan is to start by editing another one.
What Do You Think?
Do you think we’re missing something? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any thoughts on developing a project plan – why not join the conversation below?