What is a Project Plan? 3 Project Planning Steps

A project without a plan or sense of direction is doomed to fail. Without a project plan, a project risks falling behind schedule, going over budget, or upsetting clients. That’s why a thorough, robust project plan is critical to prepare for and successfully execute a project on time and under budget. 

What is a project plan?

A project plan is a set of documents that establish:

  • What the project is
  • Why the project is important
  • When the project should be completed
  • Who is involved
  • How the project will get done
  • Critical milestones

The main purpose of the project plan is to guide the project, providing a benchmark to compare actual to real progress.The level of granularity will depend on the needs and interests of the stakeholder(s), but there are some bare minimum components to keep in mind. 

Components of a project plan

A project plan includes the following key components, each of which have their own conventions and parts:

  • Statement of work (SOW): defines the boundaries of the project
  • Work breakdown structure (WBS): serves as a detailed outline of the project across a project timeline 
  • Project charter: summarizes the entire project

Depending on the type and scope of the project, more documentation might be necessary. For instance, for construction projects, permit applications and contractor agreements will likely be necessary. Nevertheless, this rough breakdown gives a sense of the minimum requirements for a project plan. 

The project charter, statement of work, and work breakdown structure show how a team will execute, oversee, and close the project.

Also read at Project-Management.com: What are the Key Ingredients of a Project Plan?

Three main project planning steps

Project planning is a time-intensive endeavor and requires a solid understanding of the planning process. Frontloading the project with deliberate preparation saves time and money later on and gives project managers a better understanding of the project as a whole. 

1. Establish the basics in a statement of work

Determine concrete boundaries for your project—in other words, its scope—in the statement of work. 

The SOW should identify:

  • Project goal(s)
  • Quality, scope, cost, and schedule baselines
  • Timeline and milestones
  • Prioritized tasks and subtasks
  • Success criteria
  • Relevant stakeholders
  • Roles and who will perform them

2. Plan the project in more detail with a work breakdown structure

The WBS is more detailed than the SOW. It breaks the project down according to these elements:

  • Subprojects, tasks, and subtasks to show how each contributes to a deliverable in the end
  • Schedule that describes the timeline and deadlines for subprojects
  • Assignees to show who is responsible for what
  • Resource management to identify necessary equipment, materials, and personnel
  • Budget that projects the total cost of all necessary resources
  • Procedures that foresee potential risks and volatility. Examples include material procurement delays, tech failure, or personnel changes.
  • Communication plan that specifies when, how often, to whom, and in what manner project progress will be disseminated

3. Tie it all together in the project charter

This step can be done at the beginning, middle, or end of the planning process. Regardless, the project charter should summarize the project and touch on key points that are detailed later on in the project plan. Include, for instance, the problem statement, business case, goal statement, timeline scope, and team members.

See what a project plan looks like at project-management.com: Use a Project Plan Template for Your Next Project 

Traditional project management vs. agile project management

One final note is that the project plan is a living document, meaning you should continuously update and refine it. However, the more thought you put into the plan at the outset, the better chance you have of earning sponsor and/or stakeholder approval.

Iterative project plans are therefore conducive to agile project management methodology rather than traditional project management approaches. Traditional project management outlines project execution in what is referred to as a waterfall method. From start to finish, project tasks proceed in a linear, unidirectional way. 

However, agile project management incorporates multiple opportunities for feedback loops to continuously inform and improve the process. Continuous, iterative changes improve the end result, making agile project management a preferred methodology.

While project managers can construct a project plan manually in an Excel spreadsheet, for instance, CIOs and project managers should work together on selecting appropriate project planning software. 

Project management software to create a winning project plan

Project planning software solutions support project managers, especially those in charge of large-scale projects, such as implementation of a new ERP or deploying software patches. 

Software prevents human error, helps project managers communicate with the team, provides an overview of a project’s progress, and keeps project documentation organized in one place. 

However, the availability of software and templates for creating and editing project plans doesn’t mean project managers are off the hook for careful planning and oversight. A project plan takes time to create and execute. Project managers and CIOs should therefore have a solid understanding of what goes into a project plan. 

A project plan can make or break a project before you even get started. Crafting a robust and repeatable project plan is a necessary and worthwhile practice. It garners useful feedback from stakeholders, enables organization, and helps secure funding and approval. 

Read next: Best Agile Project Management Tools for 2022

Lauren Hansen
Lauren Hansen
Lauren Hansen is a writer for TechnologyAdvice, covering IT strategy and trends, enterprise networking, and PM software for CIOInsight.com, enterprisenetworkingplanet.com, project-management.com, and technologyadvice.com. When she's not writing about technology trends, she's working out or spending time with family.

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