Plans are fundamental to project success. A great project plan serves as a roadmap, guiding your team throughout the project lifecycle. But a plan that doesn’t fully account for project complexity and risk can easily lead to negative outcomes. This is a complete guide to building project plans, from what they are to how the right tools can streamline the planning process.
What Is a Project Plan?
A project plan is a comprehensive document that defines all major aspects of a project, including its goals, scope, and required resources. It serves as a roadmap for executing, controlling, and completing a project. Project plans often include components like work-breakdown structures, risk matrices, and Gantt charts. They provide clarity by answering fundamental questions:
- Why? (objectives)
- What? (tasks and deliverables)
- When? (schedule)
- How? (processes, tools, and methodologies)
- Who? (resources and stakeholders)
A project plan should be a living document. As the project progresses, initial assumptions and constraints may change, causing revisions to the project plan. That’s unavoidable due to the dynamic nature of projects, and it’s necessary for the plan to stay relevant. An evolving project plan helps you better assess the impact of any changes and make well-informed decisions in response.
Why You Need a Project Plan
Project plans provide a wide range of benefits that lead to a higher chance of completing projects on time and within budget.
Formalize Project Details
As projects proceed over months and years, it’s easy to forget what was originally agreed upon. By defining the key details of your project in advance, you’re far more likely to stay on track. And by avoiding ambiguity, you reduce the chance of parties blaming each other for issues that arise and even commencing litigation.
Explain and Justify Your Project to Stakeholders
A formal project plan lets you show stakeholders what a project aims to achieve and how it intends to achieve it. Whether it’s asking your management team to allocate a certain budget to your project, explaining the project to your team members, or even convincing a client to sign off, you need a comprehensive document that lays out the key aspects of your project. A project plan provides just that.
Measure Performance and Adjust
During the project lifecycle, you need a way to determine whether you’re on track to meet your goals. A project plan establishes the baseline against which you assess current performance. It helps you recalibrate if necessary to avoid scope creep along with cost and schedule overruns.
Handle Risks and Change Better
The project planning process involves anticipating possible risks and determining the processes your team will use when adapting to change. Without a plan to manage change complete with the right workflows, forms, and software, your team is unlikely to successfully navigate through any turbulence that occurs. And you can’t effectively plan for project success if you don’t identify and consider how you’ll manage risks that could knock your project off course.
How to Create a Project Plan in 6 Steps
Creating a project plan is an exhaustive process. A project manager must coordinate with many team members to gather the data needed to put together an effective project plan. The extent of detail needed depends on the nature of the project. But regardless of your project’s size and scope, you should follow these seven steps to create a solid roadmap.
1. Start with the Stakeholders
The first step of any project plan involves identifying and communicating with the key stakeholders who will be involved with or impacted by the project. If you don’t touch base with all the right stakeholders in advance, the rest of your project plan can easily become moot due to a lack of internal or external support. These parties may include leaders who sign off on resource allocation or the project itself, the team members who will perform core project tasks, and, potentially, your organization’s end users.
While this is a good starting point, the stakeholder list can include other entities. A power plant project may require coordination with government bodies. Businesses in the oil and gas industry may have to collaborate with entities in multiple countries and understand the regulatory requirements of each. A manufacturing unit that relies on robotic equipment to fulfill its deliveries should touch base with the vendors who supply that equipment to ensure they can provide enough to meet the project’s requirements.
2. Build Out Your Project Schedule
If your plan doesn’t include a realistic project schedule, you increase the risk of encountering unexpected delays along the way. This risk is compounded in enterprise-scale, complex projects. There are many high-profile examples, like a high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco, estimated to be completed by 2020 is now due to finish in 2033. Or a nuclear site construction project in Central Washington State that has experienced a shocking 17-year delay.
A project schedule guides your team from start to finish, providing an at-a-glance way to measure progress. Scheduling is about breaking down the project into tasks and milestones. A work breakdown structure (WBS), which visually represents the project’s scope and deliverables, is a great way to ensure your schedule accurately reflects the project’s requirements. Your project schedule should also clearly define the critical path: the longest sequence of tasks that must be completed on time to avoid delays to the entire project.
3. Perform Resource and Cost Planning
A project plan should lay the foundation for effective resource management by laying out all resources necessary to complete the project, including required funds, equipment, and personnel. This involves determining the roles and responsibilities of all team members participating in the project and identifying any gaps that should be filled through additional hiring or training. It also requires beginning project cost management by producing accurate estimates of the total project cost — preferably with the help of project cost estimating software that can simplify your budgeting process.
4. Incorporate Change Management
Even the best-laid plans are subject to change, so incorporating the principles of change management in your project plan is a must. Ineffectively managed change is more likely to delay a project, increase its costs, and lead to other negative results. To prepare for future changes at the project planning stage, follow these best practices:
- Establish a contingency budget so you can provide your team with whatever resources they need to adapt to change.
- Put together workflows, templates, and tools to help with change management. These include everything from change approval and evaluation forms to a change management platform that integrates with other important portfolio and project management processes.
- Create a communication plan that facilitates clear messaging and information delivery to stakeholders when change occurs.
5. Assess and Plan for Risks
Project risk management also begins at the project plan stage. It requires identifying potential risks in advance and planning steps to address them should they be realized during the project. For instance, a logistics management company planning to add a new fleet of vehicles to reduce their delivery time might produce a risk assessment matrix that looks like this:
Risk management is easier and more accurate with integrated software that performs quantitative risk analysis and shows the impact visually. For the second risk item in the table, for instance, you could use a risk management platform to quantify the cost of potential schedule delays.
6. Create an Executive Summary and Communicate the Plan
The executive summary is a one-page snapshot of the project plan. It’s a shorter, distilled version of the key aspects of the project such as goals, milestones, cost estimates, risks, and resources. As a project plan includes many documents that may take considerable time to process, the executive summary works as a convenient summary presenting the highlights for anyone associated with or interested in the project.
A project manager will likely interact with many individuals while creating a project plan. However, each of these parties has a limited perspective on and information about the project. To provide them with a holistic view, share the project plan, together with the executive summary, and make yourself available for any questions or thoughts they have after reviewing it.
Project Planning Made Easy with the Right Software
Project planning is a key part of the project lifecycle, laying a strong foundation for eventual project success. Simplify the process by adopting a project planning platform that provides advantages such as:
- Eliminating redundant effort with standard templates and checklists
- Enabling better communication
- Creating data maps between different entities such as work breakdown and cost breakdown structures
- Identifying potential contract changes based on project performance
- Performing critical path analysis
- Performing quantitative risk analysis
- Integrating scheduling, cost and resource management, and more
EcoSys is an enterprise project performance solution that covers and integrates all phases of the project lifecycle, from planning to execution and control. Learn more about how EcoSys can help with project planning and beyond at your company.