“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success. - Pablo Picasso
If you’ve managed a project before, you likely know by now how essential project plans are in delivering successful project outcomes. Could you imagine building a house without a blueprint? How about building a highway without a plan? Hopefully not.
In my decade plus of managing projects, every single one has had one thing in common: we used a project plan. Sure, project plans are rarely perfect, but they are something to use with your teams to show where you’ve been and where you’re going. They anchor the team and help everyone know what’s going on now and what’s coming next.
Since you’re here, you probably 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.
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.
In this post I’ll cover:
- What Is A Project Plan?
- What Should A Project Plan Include?
- Why Project Planning Still Matters
- 3 Tips Before You Start Your Project Plan
- How To Create The Perfect Project Plan In 10 Steps
- Simple Project Plan Example: Making A Cake
- Sample Project Plan Template With Timeline
- What Does Project Planning Look Like In Agile?
- Other Documents Related To The Project Plan
What Is A Project Plan?
A project plan is a document that outlines the scope, objectives, and schedules of a specific project. It serves as a road map for all project stakeholders involved by providing clear direction and expectations.
It's important to note that all stakeholders should be consulted when creating a project plan, as each will have different goals and perspectives which should be taken into account.
A good project plan will provide clarity on what needs to be done, when it needs to be done by and who is responsible for each project task. It will help ensure that everyone involved in the project understands their role as well as how their work fits into the bigger picture of the overall goal.
The project plan should be regularly reviewed and updated throughout the project to ensure it is still relevant to the team's objectives.
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 roadmap or Gantt chart, made in Smartsheet, Microsoft Project, or a similar alternative planning tool.
With a comprehensive yet concise plan in place, teams can stay organized and motivated throughout the entire process. This guide will show you how to create an effective project plan that actually works!
What Is A Project Timeline?
A project plan is not necessarily a timeline, but a timeline is also not necessarily a full project plan! In many cases these two things are considered interchangeably, but in reality they are two complementary elements of comprehensive planning.
A project timeline provides an easy-to-follow visual of tasks and activities associated with a specific plan, allowing project managers to quickly identify the start date, end date, duration, sequence—all in one central place. Think of it as your own personal roadmap that takes you from Point A (Project Start) to Point B (Success!).
Creating a project timeline is a great way to ensure that projects are completed by their due dates. Yes, you will need some dates and time estimates to create a project timeline. A project timeline includes the details of when certain tasks need to be accomplished during the project, as well as any milestones that must be met along the way.
It's important to note that timelines can vary in structure depending on the type and length of project, as well as the team environment. To create an effective timeline, start by outlining each major task, then break down those tasks into smaller parts so you understand exactly what needs to happen to achieve the overall goal and metrics for success.
Make sure all team members understand their roles and monitor progress from time to time in order to ensure everyone is following the timeline correctly.
What Is The Project Life Cycle?
Understanding the project life cycle is essential for creating effective project plans. Project plans help to guide and direct a project through the project phases, outlining tasks and activities needed to reach the desired result in each phase.
The most commonly used project life cycle consists of five distinct phases: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring & control, and closing.
- Initiation: During the initiation phase, the project is proposed and defined in detail.
- Planning: The planning phase builds on the foundation built in the initiation phase by developing objectives and timelines to carry out specific tasks. This is when a project plan begins to take shape. The planning phase typically ends when the project plan is considered complete enough to move on to the next phase—execution.
- Execution: During project execution, the plan is implemented and executed in accordance with predetermined goals, objectives, and project plans.
- Monitoring & Controlling: Monitoring & control is necessary to ensure that all parts of the plan are executed correctly while juggling expectations that regularly arise due to outside influences such as resources or changes in the scope of the project (ex. scope creep).
- Closing: Closing involves wrapping up any loose ends or post-mortems needed to make sure that every aspect of the project was handled properly. A project can't truly be seen as successful until it finishes with a proper lasting closure.
What Should A Project Plan Include?
A project plan is the map that guides a project’s progress, providing structure for each step towards accomplishing a greater goal. It outlines how resources will be allocated, who’s responsible for generating results, and when each phase should be completed.
A project plan typically includes:
- phases of a project
- activities or tasks in each phase
- task start and end dates
- interdependencies between tasks
Crafting an efficient project plan can be a challenging but rewarding process, as it lays out actionable steps which maximize an organization's chance of success.
When done effectively and updated continuously, a project plan can truly serve as a map through the jungle of uncertainty that often surrounds many projects, especially highly complex ones.
Why Project Planning Still Matters
Once the pride of project managers everywhere, the humble project plan has lost a bit of its sparkle for self-proclaimed “agile” project managers. 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, project sponsors and stakeholders 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, modern 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.
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 visualize the entire project and see the interdependencies between tasks
- Helps with resource management and shows who does what task when, and helps forecast your resource requirements
- Provides milestones to track progress against (and timeframes and dates for client approvals)
- Enables you to baseline and track your project progress properly
- Enables agreement on the all-important live date
3 Tips 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 take 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.
How To Create The Perfect Project Plan In 10 Steps
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 project 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 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.
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.
Project Management Plan Checklist
Once you’re locked in with your project objective and some high-level information about how to achieve those goals, you’re ready to get started. 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 changes
- 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 into 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.
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 amount of time that it’s feasible and viable to forecast 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, the 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 details. 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 work management process 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.
You might also create a work breakdown structure (WBS) 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 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 plan filled with poor timing, 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 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 task time estimates, exercise curiosity and work with team members to determine 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 Changes
Changes to a project are inevitable. Make time for review and change cycles, both internally and with clients and each key stakeholder.
One thing often missed in creating a project plan is allowing time for review and change cycles. Changes to a project are inevitable and they are not an indicator of poor project management or poor planning.
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 changes.
7. Plan For It Not Going To Plan
Projects rarely go to plan. Simply planning for the best case scenario or Plan A, isn’t good enough—you need to bake in 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. I like to say, hope for the best but plan for the worst. 😂
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 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 realized 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 optimizations 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 project status 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 includes key milestones and opportunities to celebrate incremental success. 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.
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.
[keep screenshot graphic]
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 50,000 ft view summarizing the project, the phases, milestones, and progress.
Here are a few different project management software options that can help you create a project schedule:
Best for ready-made templates
- Hub Planner
Best for medium and large enterprises
Best project scheduling tool for workflow automation
Best for predictive resource analysis for scheduling enablement
Best for matching resources and team members to specific projects
Best project scheduling tool for growing IT and software teams
- Jira Software
Best for built-in communication & collaboration tools
Best project scheduling tool for teams of all sizes
- Resource Guru
Best for beginners who want to scale from a low-cost option
- Zoho Projects
Best all-in-one project scheduling platform
Best project scheduling software for capacity planning
Best project scheduling software for freelancers
- Microsoft Project
Best for general users
Best project scheduling software for multiple projects
Best project scheduling tool for startups and scaling teams
Sample Project Plan Template With Timeline
Want to know how to create a project plan with a timeline? Our project management expert team has created a sample project plan for a website project 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, so you can really see how they work together
- 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 available in Microsoft Project, Smartsheet, and a XML file which can be used across a variety of project management tools. The goal here is to help you get started! One of the easiest ways to learn how to make a project plan is to start by editing another one.
What Does Project Planning Look Like In Agile?
If you’ve ever heard a project manager say, “No, I can’t tell you when this will be done. We’re agile, we don’t do dates….” That person is delusional and should not be listened to.
Agile has a very specific approach to planning. Remember, agile is a mindset. The various agile methodologies are used to create processes and workflows to help teams achieve a sustainable pace of work that delivers value.
The agile methodology is commonly used because it allows for greater flexibility in project planning. Rather than have a full and detailed plan in place before starting a project, agile relies on shorter cycles of plan-do-check-adjust at regular intervals throughout.
During planning stages, the team will define the goals of the project and break them down into smaller pieces, sometimes called ‘user stories’ that provide direction to the development team.
Regular feedback from stakeholders is integrated into this process so existing priorities can be re-arranged based on new information or requirements coming in. The end product is generated faster due to the dynamic nature of agile and its ability for rapid company adaptations as situations evolve.
Planning is an important part of leveraging an agile methodology. For example, in Scrum, planning is done using a prioritized backlog where high-priority items are estimated in story points which can be extrapolated to reflect anticipated duration of the task. Progress and team speed is measured in velocity, which is measured in story points.
For example, say your backlog has a total of 250 story points in it currently. This means that the existing backlog has been estimated by the delivery team and equals a total of 250 story points. The delivery team typically works through 28 story points per iteration or sprint, which in this case is 2-weeks.
How long might it take to get through the existing backlog?
Some might say it is impossible to know; but that is wrong! You can estimate completion because we know how many story points remain and what the average velocity rate is for the team.
To find the estimated completion date for the 250 story points, we take the 250 points and divide by 28 points, as that’s what’s getting done on average per iteration. From there, we can identify how many iterations it will take to get through the known backlog, assuming velocity remains constant.
Of course, you can’t run anything less than one iteration, so always round up to the nearest iteration!
250 points in the backlog / 28 pts velocity, on average per iteration = 8.92 iterations remaining to accomplish the 250 point backlog = 9 iterations required, at 2-weeks each
Now, knowing that we need 9 iterations, and they are 2-weeks long each, we know we need 18-weeks to get through the existing estimated backlog. Voila! You now have a date estimate.
Other Documents Related To The Project Plan
Every project needs a plan. Without one, it’s simply impossible to manage and execute a project. But there are other crucial documents that help in making a project successful.
These include the project charter (which defines the key components of the project), statement of work (SOW, which outlines any agreements between the customer and contractor), and initiation documents (which set out expectations for project delivery).
Collectively, these project-related documents provide essential information to ensure all parties involved in a project have a shared understanding at every step of the process for a successful completion.
A project charter is an essential document for any project and outlines the scope, objectives, resources, and timeline of a specific venture. It serves as a blueprint that defines the key elements needed to move the project forward.
A project plan on the other hand is a more detailed outline of the work that needs to be done to accomplish the objectives in the charter.
It encompasses activities, tasks, and measures to ensure completion of each step as a way to assess progress and move towards achieving success in completing the entire project. Both documents are required for successful management of any size or type of project.
Statement of Work/Scope of Work
A project statement of work, often referred to as a SOW, is an official document that provides a detailed description of the goals, objectives, and deliverables for a given project. The SOW specifies the requirements for how the project should be completed, who is responsible for which tasks, and when the final product should be delivered.
In contrast, a project plan generally provides a more comprehensive and in-depth view of the entire project. It includes timelines and resources needed to carry out each phase successfully. While a SOW outlines what needs to be done in order to complete a particular project, it is actually the project plan that lays out exactly how it will get done.
Project Initiation Document
A project initiation document (PID) provides an overview of a proposed project, including its goals and objectives, estimated cost and timeline. It serves as the foundation for developing a formal project plan. The PID usually includes summaries of stakeholder requirements, assumptions, and other key components that provide guidance throughout the remainder of the project.
PIDs differ from project plans in that a project plan typically consists of a more detailed blueprint containing specific resources needed, tasks to be completed, potential risks and risk management strategies. Together, these two documents help ensure teams have all the tools necessary to manage their projects successfully from start to finish.
What Do You Think?
Project planning is not easy but it can be mastered with practice. It is an art form that requires creativity, focus, and teamwork to be successful. Each project is unique and will require different strategies, approaches, and techniques to find the best solution.
Even experienced professionals have difficulty getting their project plan right the first time around. There are numerous variables to consider when planning a successful project such as scope, project budget, timeline, resources needed, etc.
Taking the time to research each component and develop detailed plans will help ensure that no stone is left unturned when it comes time to implement projects. With dedication and perseverance, you (yes, you!) can become a master of project planning. I believe in you–you can do this!
What do you think? What has worked for you? What has failed? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any thoughts on developing a project plan—why not join the conversation below?