Perfect Project Plans Every Time: The Definitive Guide To Project Planning

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.

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.

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.

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 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 Checklist:

In this project management 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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.

Want to have a deeper understanding of how to create project plans, plus download a free project plan for Microsoft Project? Read our complete guide on: