Project Plan

How to write a project plan that gets results

What is a project plan?

A project plan is a document prepared by the project manager during the earliest stages of the project planning phase and refined as the project proceeds. The project plan is a management document―it is not the project schedule. The project plan should include the following information along with resources and costs:

  • Stages ― periods of a project when work is done
  • Work packages ― a grouping of activities with defined scope, time-scale and cost that only one person is responsible for delivering
  • Activities ― components of work that must be delivered to complete the project
  • Milestones ― major events with zero duration that normally depict the start of a stage
  • Deliverables ― output produced by the project and defined in the business case
  • Reviews ― a checkpoint where a deliverable (or the entire project) is evaluated against the business goals
  • Interdependencies ― when a deliverable can only be achieved when a deliverable from another work package (or project) is completed

Why write a project plan?

A project plan helps teams form the basis of understanding. In other words, a project plan is an aid to predict and prepare for difficulties, and to identify what needs to be done to succeed in our endeavors. It helps answer a variety of questions with confidence. For instance:

  • Can it be done?

  • Will it be finished on time?

  • How much will it cost?

  • Is it viable?

  • Will it work?

  • How can we be sure if it will deliver the right benefits?

  • What if we change something?

  • How much progress have we made?

  • What if someone is ill or unavailable?

Why projects fail

If you’re still not convinced of the value of a project plan, let us remind you of the main reasons projects fail. If you think it has something to do with complexity or the use of technology you’d be wrong. Projects fail because:

  1. Project scope isn’t managed effectively ― poor project planning

  2. People lose sight of the original goal ― a weak business case

  3. Top management aren’t supportive ― little engagement with stakeholders

Effective planning provides a foundation for your project and tackles these pitfalls head on. Likewise, the project plan is the basis for communication and gaining senior management support.

Blog: When the Plan Isn’t the Problem: 7 Reasons Project Plans Fail

On-Demand: The Manager's Guide to Avoiding 7 Project Portfolio Pitfalls

How to write a project plan

Now we understand why we need to plan, let’s learn how to write a project plan.

In this section we show you how the elements of a project plan may be built up from a list of items to be produced by the project. Once this is done, and dependencies between activities are readily identified, the resources needed to carry out the activities may be scheduled.

Determine project scope

Effective planning begins with an understanding of project scope. So, we first describe the quality of the products the project must deliver. Products are simply milestones or deliverables that contribute to the success of the project.

In contrast, activities consume time and effort that should contribute to the delivery of specific products and ultimately business benefits.

Develop a work breakdown structure

The work breakdown structure defines and documents project scope: everything the project will produce to meet its objective.

The work breakdown structure is a simple hierarchical tree diagram. Developing a WBS is an activity which brings together the project team, usually in a facilitated workshop, and allows the project manager to personally contribute to the planning process.

Develop the project schedule

In this part we look at project scheduling ― the project schedule or schedule plan ― and show how this is derived from the work breakdown structure.

Project flow diagram

Once the work breakdown structure is complete we have a complete list of the parts that describe the project. This is likely to be in outline for the entire project and in detail for the next stage. The next step toward preparing the schedule plan or Gantt chart is the project flow diagram.

Once the project team has agreed on all of the tasks and prepared a WBS ― to a consistent level of detail ― the dependencies between each level are tackled.

Understanding the interdependencies and relationships between tasks is not always easy. People will disagree. Therefore, it is very important that the facilitator of a planning session manages the preparation of the product flow diagram effectively.

This is achieved at a workshop session with the project team and senior stakeholders. Remember, the objective of the project plan is to describe the quality of the deliverables, and this is possible only when people with the correct knowledge, requirements, and information collaborate.

Project schedule plan

Now that we have the product descriptions and a flow diagram we are ready to prepare the project schedule plan or Gantt chart. Building the schedule plan considers:

  1. Project’s products

  2. Resources needed to deliver each piece

  3. Effort and costs associated with each

  4. Time-scales for the project

Planning time and budgets is the final step in writing the project plan.

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Adjusting your project plan

The project plan must begin with a reasonable understanding of what the project intends to deliver. Only then can we consider what resources are needed and the likely effort and costs. 

It’s no wonder that so many projects take longer than expected to deliver, suffer from cost overruns, or simply don’t deliver what was required of them when these steps aren’t followed.

Of course, even when you follow these steps in writing a project plan, the plan may fail to meet one or more expectations of cost, time, and scope. Perhaps cost and scope is fine but the time-scale is too long. Consequently the project plan will need to be reviewed and refined at regular intervals.

3 Strategies to Plan Successful Projects

Overcome common planning challenges with three strategies to help you:

  • Establish consistency using templates
  • Increase visibility and track project status
  • Reduce rework with a standard brief