A well-crafted project plan was once the pride of project management. But in the post-waterfall era of agile-everything, the humble project plan has got itself a bit of a bad reputation. So what went wrong for project planning, and is it still useful for project management?

In this post, we’re going to start with some project planning basics to explain ‘what is a project plan?’ and give an example of a simple project plan. We’ll then tackle the tricky question, ‘does a good project plan matter?’ We’ll share a handy project plan checklist infographic and give you a step by step guide to creating a project plan. What’s more, we’re including some great bonus content: a website redesign project plan template download.

What Is A Project Plan?

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s get on the same page with our understanding of a project plan. A project plan is a roadmap that shows the steps you need to take to get from A to B. It shows how you get from your current state to the desired future state.

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A project plan shows the different phases of a project and the activities or tasks in each phase. Typically, it shows when a task begins, ends and the interdependencies between each task. A project plan can be as simple as a scribble on the back of a napkin, a few lines in excel, but is usually presented as a Gantt chart, and made in Microsoft Project, or one of the other Microsoft Project alternative planning tools.

Simple Project Plan example: The ‘Make A Cake Project’

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 you need to go through 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 that the process will need to follow in order that you produce the cake properly.

Simple Project Plan Example - Making a Cake

Simple project plan example using Microsoft Project – A Project plan to make a cake

The project plan shows, the different phases of the project, in bold as the summary tasks, (Initiation, Planning, Baking and Evaluate) and each of the subtasks with durations, start and finish dates, milestones (the black diamonds) as well as dependencies.

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.

So on a straightforward project, creating a project plan is all pretty easy, right?

Three Inconvenient ‘Truths’ About Project Planning

So maybe a project plan makes sense for making a cake. But for all the project plan haters, let’s tackle the elephant in the room – aren’t project plans for a complex IT project just a waste of time? Hasn’t the bright new shiny world of agile done away with our need for project plans?

Here are some of the typical arguments against project plans:

  1. Project plans are pure fantasy – pipe dreams not grounded in the reality of the team or task at hand – which then become handcuffs for the project manager and team tasked with delivery.
  2. Project plans can artificially constrain a team’s ability to iterate and self-optimize – if you want people to do their best work, shouldn’t you remove the constraints that will hold them back?
  3. Project plans are perpetually out of date – What’s the point of having a plan if it no one sticks to it and it’s constantly changing?

The no project plan alternative that’s often touted as being more ‘agile’ is to simply set up a self-organizing team, give them a brief, get started on sprints and let them all work together to figure it all out themselves. They’ll be more motivated as they own the ‘plan’ and can keep delivering, testing and learning until the project is complete.

Why Project Planning Still Matters

But is that a viable alternative for our clients and us as project managers? Here’s why both clients and project managers still need to do proper project planning.

Why Clients Care About Having A Project Plan

If you’re working with clients, before you can start a project and get your client to release their budget, they’ll usually want to know a few pesky little details 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.

In response to these questions, a typical response you might get is; ‘no one can know – it’ll all depend on the team’s velocity.’ That might be true, but clients usually need to know what they’re getting, when, and for how much before they’ll sign off on a project. So you can end up in a stalemate and the project doesn’t start.

Why Project Managers Care About Project Plans

It’s not just clients that care about project plans though. As a project manager, you need to know more than just the details the clients need to know about your projects. Once the project gets started, you’ll need that project plan to ascertain if the project is on track.

You need to know if the project is meeting the budget, timeline and quality criteria so that it delivers the intended results. You can’t know that unless you’ve got something to measure against.

7 Reasons Why A Project Plan Matters

Here are seven reasons why project plans are probably the single most important piece of project documentation.

7 reasons why project plans matter infographic

A project plan:

  1. Clarifies the process and activities that will lead to the project’s outputs and deliverables
  2. Gives you information that enables you to estimate properly and define a project’s outputs and scope
  3. Enables you to visualise the entire project and see the interdependencies between tasks
  4. Helps you show who does what task, when and forecast your resource requirements
  5. Provides milestones for tracking project progress (and dates for client approvals)
  6. Enables you to baseline and track your project progress properly
  7. Enables the agreement of the all-important live date

A project plan should be much more than a roadmap though; to give a client a complete view of a project, it should be combined with an estimate and a statement of work too.

Going back to those inconvenient ‘truths’ about project planning. Proper project planning isn’t difficult but it takes time to do properly. And it’s not a one-time thing, you create a plan, and then continually refine that plan. Even if you are running an ‘agile’ project, you still need a clear direction – an idea of what you’re going to create, how you’re going to create it, and when you’ll know that you’re finished.

You need a project plan to show your approach – how you’re going to take a project from initiation, to project close – and the process you’ll take to get there. It’s important for clients to buy into the project process so that they 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.

A project plan is critical to get everyone on the same page with what you’re going to do to achieve your project goals. A project plan documents the process and activities that come together to enable something amazing to happen.

The 5 Big Project Plan Brief Questions

But before you get started on creating the project plan, you need to understand the project’s brief –  what you’re trying to do and achieve. Without understanding the project’s goals and brief, there’s no way to deliver them. As a minimum, you need to be clear on:

  1. Why? The project’s strategic goals.
  2. What? The activities (or process) outputs and deliverables.
  3. When? The deadlines and dependencies.
  4. How? The process or methodology.
  5. Who? The client and their team of stakeholders.

Usually, a good project kickoff meeting will help us produce a proper project brief because our project plan should always work toward achieving the project goals. If you don’t ultimately understand the point, or 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, and you might produce some outputs which aren’t useful.

How To Create The Perfect Project Plan In 10 Steps

How to create a perfect project plan - infographic

How To Create A Project Plan

Got that brief nailed? Now you can get cracking with creating a project plan. We’ve created this project management plan checklist as a handy guide to creating a project plan for any project – whether that’s a large cake, a large website platform, or even something non-digital, the principles and steps are the same.

With your project plan complete, you’ll be equipped with the necessary information to complete your project planning and the detail you’ll need to pull together a cost estimate, statement of work and get your project started.

Project Management Plan Checklist:

In this project management plan checklist, we’ve simplified the process of how to write a project plan to ten simple steps. They’re the basics you need to master to develop your own project plan that works:

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 start adding in all the tasks that you need completing. 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.

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 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 your clients.

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, so that when the project starts, everyone is clear about what progress looks like, and so that it becomes clear very quickly if the project is running behind schedule. 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.

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Bonus Content: Project Plan Template

To make it easier to understand how to create a project plan, we’ve created a sample project plan template that’s more than just a simple project plan template – it’s 140 line items detailed for a website redesign project. We’re sharing it for you to download, use and abuse. It’s created in Microsoft Project as a .mpp file, but you’ll also be able to 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. So end your search for a Gantt chart template, we’ve got it right here for you!

As a caveat, this project plan template will give you a head start, but you’ll need to tailor the project plan for your needs. This timeline is a hybrid approach, typically used in agencies for a website redesign. We’re sharing this to be indicative of a how a project plan timeline can be created, rather than trying to advise on a particular process. To that end, it’s over simplified – particularly in the Craft phase – you’ll need to tailor the process to your needs.

Sample project plan template - website redesign on microsoft project

Sample project plan template of a website redesign on Microsoft Project

Sample project plan timeline of a website design on Microsoft Project

Sample Gantt Chart template of a website design on Microsoft Project

As you’re using the project plan template, make sure you change the client approval cycles – you may need more or less time to make amends and get it back to your clients. Finally, we’ve included US stat holidays for 2017 but you’ll need to add additional non-working days.

Power-up Your PM Skills With Expert Training

Overview our upcoming Mastering Digital Project Management Online Course, where you can gain access to expert instruction for leading happy teams and delivering high-value projects in the digital world.

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?

Ben Aston

About Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager. I've been in the industry for more than 10 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS’, flash games to banner ads and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.


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