Six Steps to Creating the Perfect Project Plan
As the popular maxim goes, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Nowhere is this truer than in the creation of a project plan. And, as training organization PM4DEV explains, “a project can only be successful if the success criteria were defined from the start.” Without a plan, you can’t define or measure the scope of the project or its success.
We all know that planning reduces uncertainty, and a little effort at the beginning saves a great deal of time in the long run. Admittedly, no project will ever run perfectly, but a comprehensive project plan allows you to consider likely outcomes, as well as identify and troubleshoot problems so that you can decide what corrective measures you might need to take if things don’t go how you expect.
Planning increases everyone’s understanding of the tasks at hand and improves efficiency by a wide margin. In fact, in his book Effective Project Management, Robert K. Wysocki estimates that “the project that uses good planning finishes 18-36 percent sooner than the poorly planned project, including the time spent planning.” In a competitive business climate, clients and businesses often need their deliverables ASAP and as close to perfect as possible, making the creation of a solid project plan crucial to a project’s success.
Before we look at how to create a foolproof project plan, let’s explore the definition, and what’s involved.
Work breakdown structure vs project plan
The work breakdown structure (WBS) entails the entire project, in all its parts. A WBS is important for winning the work, as well as using it as a basis to create your project plan. It’s also an important way to control project elements, identify deliverables, break work down into sub-projects, create a budget and define results. It’s your baseline for estimating the resources and time needed to complete the project, and the total costs. Think of the WBS as a project hierarchy, almost like your project’s family tree, each limb related, but distinct from the others. It breaks down the deliverables identified, setting out everything the project needs to accomplish, but not the actions necessary to complete the project.
The project plan, however, defines project goals and objectives, and the actions needed to complete the project. This is where you break the project down into focused steps, each with its own defined resources and time allocation. The plan can be divided into the following areas:
- Risk assessment
- Resource management
- Schedule management
- Scope management
- Stakeholder management
- Change management
There are multiple variables to consider in creating a project plan, and while you could fall down a research rabbit hole to find them all, we suggest you start by answering the following ten questions. This will cover the basic ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ information you’ll need to get started on your plan.
- What do you need to deliver? (And conversely, what are you NOT responsible for delivering?)
- When will you deliver it?
- How much will it cost?
- Who will do it?
- What product or service will be delivered as a result of the project?
- Who is the intended audience for the final product?
- What determines task completion?
- Who is responsible for accepting the product as completed?
- How will changes be dealt with?
- What are the potential problems and risks?
Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s time to use the following six steps to write your plan:
1. Define your project with the following elements:
Objectives: What do you need to achieve to ensure a successful outcome, and why are you undertaking the work? Think of the SMART goals framework: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
Scope & Deliverables: Change is inevitable in any project delivery, and it’s important to outline the project’s boundaries to identify scope creep. Define the essential project deliverables in as much detail as possible, which will save you time once the project has begun. Also consider who will be in charge of approving or denying any changes that may need to be made along the way.
Criteria for Success: Once you’re clear on your objectives, this section will be much easier to set out. Start by setting out your criteria for success, or in other words, the unique KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that will make this particular project successful. Think about how you’ll deliver the project on time, keep within your budget, the quality of the finished project and how you’ll fix the problem your client has asked you to solve.
Human resources: As part of your overall budget, you’ll need to calculate how many staff members you need, and whether you will need to hire anyone extra – either full-time staff or an external contractor. Ask key stakeholders what they believe is required, in case they come at the problem from a different angle.
Timeframe: Assess how many weeks, months, or even years the project will take to complete.
Schedule: Next, it’s time to start laying out your schedule. Gantt charts are particularly useful for creating schedules, and this is where your completed work breakdown structure will come in handy. Break the schedule down into a baseline schedule of what needs to be delivered and when, the defined project milestones, and the deadlines for each section of the project as well as the end date. At this point, the project can be broken down into distinct phases, such as Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring & Controlling, and Closure.
2. Identify risks
Appoint a risk manager who can monitor the risks you’ve identified, such as going over budget or not meeting deadlines. List all the information your team needs to know to carry out their work effectively – including anything they may be in the dark about currently, that might prevent them from doing so.
3. Organization and People Management
Be clear on how many team members you will need to assign to each project section, what skills they need, and whether you might need to take on more (or less) staff, or contractors, to assist at each stage. Evaluate, where feasible, where team members will be working – on-site with the client, in your company offices, or from home – and any costs (such as travel expenses) that might be incurred as a result.
Also, think about who will be communicating with the client, and who is in charge of monitoring the budget and schedule. Which stakeholders will you need to communicate with throughout the project? On the client side, who will deal with any project changes that may come up, and who will receive and sign off on the final product? It might also be useful to know if this will be done by committee or by one individual, so that time can be built in accordingly.
4. Project resources
This is where you home in on the actual tools and equipment you need to complete the job – such as hardware, software, travel expenses, stationery, PPE etc – how much these will cost, and where you will source them from.
5. Create a communications plan
Without a good communications plan, your project will likely falter very quickly. Who are the stakeholders you need to update as progress is made? Who do you need to tell if the budget is being overrun, or the timeline extending? Who communicates with team members on different parts of the project? Do weekly status updates need to be sent out, or deadline reminders? How often will you communicate with the team, and when? Will you do this via formal meetings, phone, email, or another online tool? There is a wealth of project management tools out there that can help expedite and automate the process of building a robust project plan.
6. Make use of the tools available
Whether it’s a Gantt chart, time management app or automated billing tool, making use of digital tools can help streamline project management and remove many of the manual processes involved, such as recording progress updates, emailing team members or sharing documents. However, avoid using a plethora of point solutions, as the time it takes to switch between each integration may negate the time you save by using them in the first place. Instead, opt for a more comprehensive project management solution that includes all of the features you need for your particular project.
The bottom line
We’re not going to lie: this is time consuming. But keep in mind, a focussed effort now will pay dividends in the long run by saving precious time and resources. A good plan provides the basis for measuring what you have planned and how your team has performed at the end of the project, reducing uncertainty and limiting mistakes. If you don’t understand what you’re trying to do, you’re setting yourself up for failure and inefficiency.
If you’re still unsure where to start, sign up for Scoro’s 14-day free trial and discover how a comprehensive work and project management platform can help you put your plan into place with confidence and ease.