Organize your projects with project plans to keep things on track—before you even start. A project plan houses all the necessary details of your project, such as goals, tasks, scope, deadlines, and deliverables. This shows stakeholders a clear roadmap of your project, ensures you have the resources for it, and holds everyone accountable from the start. In this article, we teach you the seven steps to create your own project plan.
Project plans are essential to keeping your project organized and on track. A great project plan will help you kick off your work with all the necessary pieces—from goals and budgets to milestones and communication plans—in one place. Save yourself time (and a few headaches) by creating a work plan that will make your project a success.
Project planning is the second stage in the project management process, following project initiation and preceding project execution. During the project planning stage, the project manager creates a project plan, which maps out project requirements. The project planning phase typically includes setting project goals, designating project resources, and mapping out the project schedule.
A project plan—sometimes called a work plan—is a blueprint of the goals, objectives, and tasks your team needs to accomplish for a specific project. Your project plan should include information about your project schedule, scope, due dates, and deliverables for all phases of the project lifecycle. But not all project planning processes are created equal—which leads some teams to underutilize them or skip over them completely. To write an effective project plan, you need to be methodical (follow a series of steps), specific, and clear when it comes to your ideas and execution strategy.Free cross-functional project template
If you're still unsure about what a project plan is, here's how it differs from other project elements:
Project plan vs. work plan: A project plan and a work plan are the same thing. Different teams or departments might prefer one term or another—but they both ultimately describe the same thing: a list of big-picture action steps you need to take to hit your project objectives.
Project plan vs. project charter: A project charter is an outline of your project. Mostly, you use project charters to get signoff from key stakeholders before you start. Which means your project charter comes before your project plan. A project charter is an outline of a simple project plan—it should only include your project objectives, scope, and responsibilities. Then, once your charter has been approved, you can create a project plan to provide a more in-depth blueprint of the key elements of your project.
Project plan vs. project scope: Your project scope defines the size and boundaries of your project. As part of your project plan, you should outline and share the scope of your project with all project stakeholders. If you’re ever worried about scope creep, you can refer back to your pre-defined scope within your project plan to get back on track.
Project plan vs. agile project: Agile project management is a framework to help teams break work into iterative, collaborative components. Agile frameworks are often run in conjunction with scrum and sprint methodologies. Like any project, an Agile project team can benefit from having a project plan in place before getting started with their work.
Project plan vs. work breakdown structure: Similar to a project plan, your work breakdown structure (WBS) helps you with project execution. While the project plan focuses on every aspect of your project, the WBS is focused on deliverables—breaking them down into sub-deliverables and project tasks. This helps you visualize the whole project in simple steps. Because it’s a visual format, your WBS is best viewed as a Gantt chart (or timeline), Kanban board, or calendar—especially if you’re using project management software.
Project plans set the stage for the entire project. Without one, you’re missing a critical step in the overall project management process. When you launch into a project without defined goals or objectives, it can lead to disorganized work, frustration, and even scope creep. A clear, written project management plan provides a baseline direction to all stakeholders, while also keeping everyone accountable. It confirms that you have the resources you need for the project before it actually begins.
A project plan also allows you, as the person in charge of leading execution, to forecast any potential challenges you could run into while the project is still in the planning stages. That way, you can ensure the project will be achievable—or course-correct if necessary. According to a study conducted by the Project Management Institute, there is a strong correlation between project planning and project success—the better your plan, the better your outcome. So, conquering the planning phase also makes for better project efficiency and results.
To create a clear project management plan, you need a way to track all of your moving parts. No matter what type of project you’re planning, every work plan should have:
Goals and project objectives
Not sure what each of these mean or should look like? Let’s dive into the details:
You’re working on this project plan for a reason—likely to get you, your team, or your company to an end goal. But how will you know if you’ve reached that goal if you have no way of measuring success?
Every successful project plan should have a clear, desired outcome. Identifying your goals provides a rationale for your project plan. It also keeps everyone on the same page and focused on the results they want to achieve. Moreover, research shows that employees who know how their work is contributing to company objectives are 2X as motivated. Yet only 26% of employees have that clarity. That’s because most goal-setting happens separate from the actual work. By defining your goals within your work plan, you can connect the work your team is doing directly to the project objectives in real-time.
In general, your project goals should be higher-level than your project objectives. Your project goals should be SMART goals that help you measure project success and show how your project aligns with business objectives. The purpose of drafting project objectives, on the other hand, is to focus on the actual, specific deliverables you're going to achieve at the end of your project. Your project plan provides the direction your team needs to hit your goals, so you can create a workflow that hits project objectives.
Your project plan provides the direction your team needs to hit your goals, by way of your project objectives. By incorporating your goals directly into your planning documentation, you can keep your project’s North Star on hand. When you’re defining your project scope, or outlining your project schedule, check back on your goals to make sure that work is in favor of your main objectives.Read: How to write an effective project objective, with examples
Once you’ve defined your goals, make sure they’re measurable by setting key success metrics. While your goal serves as the intended result, you need success metrics to let you know whether or not you’re performing on track to achieve that result. The best way to do that is to set SMART goals. With SMART goals, you can make sure your success metrics are clear and measurable, so you can look back at the end of your project and easily tell if you hit them or not.
For example, a goal for an event might be to host an annual 3-day conference for SEO professionals on June 22nd. A success metric for that goal might be having at least 1,000 people attend your conference. It’s both clear and measurable.Free cross-functional project template
Running a project usually means getting collaborators involved in the execution of it. In your project management plan, outline which team members will be a part of the project and what each person’s role will be. This will help you decide who is responsible for each task (something we’ll get to shortly) and let stakeholders know how you expect them to be involved.
During this process, make sure to define the various roles and responsibilities your stakeholders might have. For example, who is directly responsible for the project’s success? How is your project team structured (i.e. do you have a project manager, a project sponsor, etc.)? Are there any approvers that should be involved before anything is finalized? What cross-functional stakeholders should be included in the project plan? Are there any risk management factors you need to include?
Consider using a system, such as a RACI chart, to help determine who is driving the project forward, who will approve decisions, who will contribute to the project, and who needs to remain informed as the project progresses.
Then, once you’ve outlined all of your roles and stakeholders, make sure to include that documentation in your project plan. Once you finalize your plan, your work plan will become your cross-functional source of truth.Read: 9 strategies for successfully managing multiple projects
Running a project usually costs money. Whether it’s hiring freelancers for content writing or a catering company for an event, you’ll probably be spending some cash.
Since you’ve already defined your goals and stakeholders as part of your project plan, use that information to establish your budget. For example, if this is a cross-functional project involving multiple departments, will the departments be splitting the project cost? If you have a specific goal metric like event attendees or new users, does your proposed budget support that endeavor?
By establishing your project budget during the project planning phase (and before the spending begins), you can get approval, more easily track progress, and make smart, economical decisions during the implementation phase of your project. Knowing your budget beforehand helps you with resource management, ensuring that you stay within the initial financial scope of the project. Planning helps you determine what parts of your project will cost what—leaving no room for surprises later on.
An important part of planning your project is setting milestones, or specific objectives that represent an achievement. Milestones don’t require a start and end date, but hitting one marks a significant accomplishment during your project. They are used to measure progress. For example, let’s say you’re working to develop a new product for your company. Setting a milestone on your project timeline for when the prototype is finalized will help you measure the progress you’ve made so far.
A project deliverable, on the other hand, is what is actually produced once you meet a milestone. In our product development example, we hit a milestone when we produced the deliverable, which was the prototype. You can also use project dependencies—tasks that you can’t start until others are finished. Dependencies ensure that work only starts once it’s ready. Continuing the example, you can create a project dependency to require approval from the project lead before prototype testing begins.
If you’re using our free project plan template, you can easily organize your project around deliverables, dependencies, and milestones. That way, everyone on the team has clear visibility into the work within your project scope, and the milestones your team will be working towards.Read: How to set, achieve, and celebrate project milestones
In order to achieve your project goals, you and your stakeholders need clarity on your overall project timeline and schedule. Aligning on the time frame you have can help you better prioritize during strategic planning sessions.
Not all projects will have clear-cut timelines. If you're working on a large project with a few unknown dates, consider creating a project roadmap instead of a full-blown project timeline. That way, you can clarify the order of operations of various tasks without necessarily establishing exact dates.
Once you’ve covered the high-level responsibilities, it’s time to focus some energy on the details. In your work plan template, start by breaking your project into tasks, ensuring no part of the process is skipped. Bigger tasks can even be broken down into smaller subtasks, making them more manageable.
Then, take each task and subtask, and assign it a start date and end date. You’ll begin to visually see everything come together in a cohesive project timeline. Be sure to add stakeholders, mapping out who is doing what by when.
We’ve established that most projects include multiple stakeholders. That means communication styles will vary among them. You have an opportunity to set your expectations up front for this particular project in your project plan. Having a communication plan is essential for making sure everyone understands what’s happening, how the project is progressing, and what’s going on next. And in case a roadblock comes up, you’ll already have a clear communication system in place.
As you’re developing your communication plan, consider the following questions:
How many project-related meetings do you need to have? What are their goals?
How will you manage project status updates? Where will you share them?
What tool will you use to manage the project and communicate progress and updates?
Like the other elements of your project plan, make sure your communication plan is easily accessible within your project plan. Stakeholders and cross-functional collaborators should be able to easily find these guidelines during the planning and execution phases of your project. Using project planning tools or task management software that integrates with apps like Slack and Gmail can ensure all your communication happens in one easily accessible place.Read: Why a clear communication plan is more important than you think
Next, to help you understand what your project management plan should look like, here are two example plans for marketing and design projects that will guide you during your own project planning.
Let’s say you’re the Content Lead for your company, and it’s your responsibility to create and deliver on a content marketing calendar for all the content that will be published next year. You know your first step is to build your work plan. Here’s what it might look like:
You establish that your goal for creating and executing against your content calendar is to increase engagement by 10%. Your success metrics are the open rate and click through rate on emails, your company’s social media followers, and how your pieces of content rank on search engines.
There will be five people involved in this project.
You, Content Lead: Develop and maintain the calendar
Brandon and Jamie, Writers: Provide outlines and copy for each piece of content
Nate, Editor: Edit and give feedback on content
Paula, Producer: Publish the content once it’s written and edited
Your budget for the project plan and a year’s worth of content is $50,000.
Your first milestone is to finish the content calendar, which shows all topics for the year. The deliverable is a sharable version of the calendar. Both the milestone and the deliverables should be clearly marked on your project schedule.
You’ve determined that your schedule for your content calendar project plan will go as follows:
October 15 - November 1: The research phase to find ideas for topics for content
November 2 - November 30: Establish the topics you’ll write about
December 1 - January 1: Build the calendar
January 1 - December 31: Content will be written by Brandon and Jamie, and edited by Nate, throughout the year
January 16 - December 31: Paula will begin publishing and continue to do so on a rolling basis throughout the year.
You’ll have a kick-off meeting and then monthly update meetings as part of your communication plan. Weekly status updates will be sent on Friday afternoons. All project-related communication will occur within a project management tool.
Kerry Hoffman, Senior Project Manager of Marketing Operations at ClassPass, oversees all marketing projects undertaken by the creative, growth, and content teams. Here are her top three strategies for managing project plans:
Identify stakeholders up front: No matter the size of the project, it’s critical to know who the stakeholders are and their role in the project so you ensure you involve the right people at each stage. This will also make the review and approval process clear before the team gets to work.
Agree on how you want to communicate about your project: Establish where and when communication should take place for your project to ensure that key information is captured in the right place so everyone stays aligned.
Be adaptable and learn other people’s working styles: Projects don’t always go according to plan, but by implementing proper integration management you can keep projects running smoothly. Also, find out how project members like to work so you take that into account as you create your plan. It will help things run smoother once you begin executing.
Congratulations—you’re officially a work planning pro. With a few steps, a little bit of time, and a whole lot of organization, you’ve successfully written a project plan.