Project planning is an essential stage in project management, and, notably, the project management plan is commonly part of the correct execution, monitoring, and closure of a project, especially for larger or more complex ones.
Yet, not all teams create project plans for their more complex projects, let alone use apps or work management software. While not always, the results of no project planning can be chaotic and might negatively impact your project unless you declutter your work progressively.
Note: If you’re unsure what methodology is in project management and why it’s best practice to employ a pm framework, read this article.
But that’s only if you jump straight into execution and forget to create a project plan. Or don’t want to do it because you don’t see its purpose, or worse, think of project planning as a time-wasting activity.
For all teams who don’t skip project planning, the project will be detailed from the beginning, and most risks or changes will be treated according to this plan.
To help you understand why having one is vital, I’ll show you exactly how you should create a project plan to get your project in order and reap its full benefits.
What Is A Project Management Plan?
First, we shouldn’t confuse the terms “project management plan” and “project plan.” Most people with no project management experience use the term “project plan” to refer to the project’s schedule. Even experienced project managers use “project plan” as a short version of “project management plan.”
Since the term “project plan” is indeed more common, I will use it alternatively throughout this article.
However, the correct term for the formal document that details the project’s development remains “project management plan.” The PMI® PMBOK Guide only mentions and defines the project management plan.
According to the Lexicon of Project Management Terms, a project management plan is defined as follows: “The document that describes how the project will be executed, monitored and controlled, and closed.”
Briefly, a project plan tells you exactly how the team should approach a project during project execution, control, and closure. It shows what needs to be done, who should work on which task, how the in-office or remote team can communicate, what resources you’ll need, and your budget and deadlines.
A project plan should include initial estimates, internal costs, other project profitability factors, and concrete examples of financial solutions to ensure project success.
If you’re a beginner without prior project management experience, consider the project plan a map. It shows you exactly where you are, where you need to go, and what alternative paths you have if something goes wrong or you make a mistake.
Please don’t confuse it with the project charter, though. The latter doesn’t include all the activities employees need to complete nor provide details on how the project should be executed. Project charters are also short (around 3-5 pages) compared to lengthy project management plans, which can sometimes exceed 100 pages.
Usually, the project manager creates the project plan only after gathering feedback from the team, clients, and other stakeholders. Written during the project planning stage, the whole process of writing the plan requires close attention and sometimes several days of work. This ensures that all aspects have been covered before going into project execution.
Most project management plans are written using a text editor and can be printed, used, and later placed in an archive. But if you’d rather keep your data in the cloud, you can always use project planning software. These prevent data loss and help you automatically share updates and files with your team.
The Project Plan’s Purpose
Having a plan before you start working on the tasks helps you organize your team’s activity, save time you’d otherwise spend on fixing misunderstandings, and reduce the costs you’d waste on useless resources.
Tip: Never rush the creation of the project plan. To make sure you haven’t missed anything, go into every single detail and review the plan as many times as necessary.
This plan aims to ensure you have everything in order from the start. An accurate plan can prepare you to face any changes and risks that could arise, keep you within budget, identify bottlenecks, and prevent project delays.
As the central document of a project, there are several different benefits and usage situations for a project management plan:
Defines the project’s value proposition
The project plan tells stakeholders why you’re carrying out a project, its purpose, what problem it solves, and why they should sponsor it. This also helps the plan’s author when choosing a particular development path for the project. Clear goals make picking the proper techniques, resources, tasks, and team members easy.
Develops upon what goes into the project
The project management plan should detail all tasks that the team needs to carry out, what resources to execute them, or any other task that might be needed whenever a change or risk event occurs. Project planning also shows stakeholders the final deliverables (product or service) and their quality standards.
Shows who’s responsible for each activity
Project planning helps you tell your team members in charge of which task, what their responsibilities are, what resources they can use for a specific task, what their time limits are, and how they should conduct each task.
Note: During project planning, your team can say approximately which tasks, resources, and how much time they’ll need to complete a specific part of the project. This is why their input is mandatory when building the project plan.
Sets your deadlines
It can show you exactly how much time a team member has to complete a task, the project’s milestones, and when you should deliver the final product or service.
Guides your budget
Having precise budget estimations from the project planning stage can help you avoid unanticipated costs that might postpone or cancel your project.
Tip: If you find yourself in this situation, you can ask your client for more money. Ensure you’ve clearly stated the possibility of your initial budget not being enough in the original project plan.
The Elements Of A Project Plan
Any project management plan must and will (if created correctly) contain all the essential elements and secondary plans that go into the project management process. Check out our template below to see exactly what each step should include during project planning.
Note: The elements below are the basic ones all project plans should include. In addition, you can focus on other aspects, depending on your company, team, client, and project.
This first part should briefly describe the project, its purpose, and any objectives, needs, and goals you’ll use to measure its success. You can also include a list of deliverables as part of the introduction to state the project’s objectives.
2. Executive Summary
Use the project charter you’ve created to find and summarize the information you can include in the project plan.
Note: You can also include the list of stakeholders in the project plan. However, the 5th edition of the PMI® PMBOK Guide and Standards has introduced the Stakeholder Management Plan, which can be added as a separate section to the project’s plan.
3. Integration Management Plan
The Integration Management Plan includes the detailed processes of managing a project until its completion: team roles and responsibilities, company organization and hierarchies, and other internal or external influencers.
Focus on managing and controlling changes, executing tasks, monitoring team activity, and closing the project.
Note: While some include the Change Management Plan here, this can also be a separate section of the project management plan.
4. Scope Management Plan
For this section, use the scope you’ve mentioned in the project charter and detail it. Include the project’s limits, what your team can and can’t work on, and what should be avoided by all means.
A clearly stated scope will help your team understand the project’s boundaries and prevent misunderstandings or mistakes.
Tip: You can also include the Requirements Management Plan and your project’s Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to write down all activities and their relationships here.
5. Schedule Management Plan
The schedule is one of the most essential elements you should set during project planning. List all time-related details by the project’s deliverables, due dates, milestones, and other determinant factors. Include all methods of schedule development, who’s in charge, what resources will be used, and how time reporting should be done.
Tip: You don’t have to plan your project’s schedule on paper. Use project management software or task management tools instead to schedule the duration of each task and make them available for the entire team. Or even better, tools for Gantt chart creation (pretty famous in the construction industry) to align planning with time management.
Gantt Chart example in Paymo
Start your free Paymo trial to test out the Gantt Chart feature on your projects.
6. Cost Management Plan
This section contains all the information on how a project’s budget will be managed and controlled, including the methods used for cost management, who’s in charge of this, and how budget reporting can be done.
Note: if you need an automatic invoicing tool to create reports, estimates, and invoices and ensure timely payment, check out the best free invoicing software. Such an invoicing solution is suitable for small businesses and freelancers alike. If you’re self-employed and want a quick fix for your invoice, i.e., add your logo and amounts in the custom fields, opt for an invoice generator online.
7. Quality Management Plan
This part of the plan focuses on ensuring the quality of the final product/service in a way that meets the client’s requirements.
State the project’s quality standards and procedures, the team members in charge of QA (Quality Assurance) and QC (Quality Control), what tools and techniques can be used, and how the quality of the project deliverables should be measured.
Tip: Include the standards and quality procedures for all deliverables from the project planning phase to ensure the final result is accepted.
8. Human Resources Management Plan
Use this plan section to explain how the project team should be appointed, managed, and trained during development. This includes needed resources, techniques to handle performance and productivity issues, and other tools or methods that can be used.
Tip: Include everything else that involves your team, from team-building to mentoring and other career development opportunities.
9. Communication Management Plan
Describe how you should manage team and stakeholder communication, including methods and tools, team members responsible for handling communication, and any other relevant elements.
When creating your plan, focus on the information that can be shared, who can do this, which methods can be used, and when a piece of information should and shouldn’t be communicated with others.
Note: Not having a communication plan can confuse the project’s phases and lead to misunderstandings requiring extra issue management.
10. Risk Management Plan
Describe how risks will be identified, analyzed, managed, monitored, controlled, and reported. During project planning, state who’ll be responsible for these steps, the exact responsibilities, and what tools or techniques can be used.
Tip: You can also plan for ongoing risk identification as the project progresses to ensure that no unrecognized risk can derail the project.
You’ve probably created these plans before building your complete project plan. According to the PMBOK Guide, most of these secondary plans are usually made during the several different processes that precede the development of the project plan.
At the end of the plan, add:
- an Approvals section where stakeholder signatures are gathered
- a Glossary to explain the terms you’ve used
- an Attachments section to add any other notes or relevant documents that can guide the project development process
- a Revision History section as well, either at the beginning or end of the plan, to keep track of any changes
Project Plan Template
Here’s a template for a project management plan you can use as a baseline. You can download it as a PDF file.
Instructions On Using This Template
Use the template as a reference to know where to add project-related information and what details you should include. You’ll find the explanations for each section written in an italicized font. Remove these indications when you’re creating your plan. Also, refresh the Table of Contents after completing it with your project’s particularities.
How you structure your project plan depends on your company’s organization, but the elements outlined in this template are the most often mentioned. Going over these in great detail can prevent you from bumping into a problem for which you won’t be able to find a solution.
Note: While this template is only a few pages long, the complete project plan can have as many as 100 pages or more.
Steps To Building Your First Project Plan
I know the whole process of building such a detailed and complete document might look tedious, but follow the following systematic steps, and you’ll get your first project management plan:
1. Ensure complete comprehension of everything that goes into the project
Before you create any project document, make sure everyone has understood your client’s requirements, the project’s objectives, its limitations, what the deliverables should be, and what their quality standards are.
You’ll need to know precisely the client’s expectations before writing anything down. Hold a new project planning meeting with your clients to avoid any misunderstandings. Ask relevant questions, see their preferences, and avoid leaving anything out.
2. Outline your project plan
After the client meeting, organize all your answers and project-related facts and create a rough plan. Consider all project phases and tasks team members must complete for work to continue.
This step is your chance to consider how you’ll approach the project. Write every project detail that goes through your mind, be it cost, time, resources, team, general assumptions, or others. You’ll then better organize this information into a complete plan.
Note: Outlining a rough project management plan can help you better organize your final one and keep all information consistent without contradictory statements.
3. Write the complete project plan
Gather and compile your written plans to create your complete project management plan. This is often the lengthiest part of project planning, as you’ll need to write and include at least everything we’ve mentioned in the elements section above.
Besides these, you can add any issue concerning your project, from Governance Reviews to Procurement Management, Information Management, Configuration Management, Acquisition Strategy, and more.
4. Review the project plan
Don’t send the plan for approval if you haven’t reviewed it. Check the project plan as often as needed until you and your team have no misunderstandings or unclarities. It would be best to involve your team in reviewing the project plan. Everyone can be responsible for checking what goes in and out of the tasks they’ll be accountable for.
Tip: Although you’ll most likely make changes during project execution, ensure you don’t make any serious mistakes while planning the project.
5. Get approval
A project plan can’t be used unless it has been formally approved. Depending on your company’s size and structure, the project sponsor, project manager, or product manager can give you the final go. If you’re wondering which is better concerning pm responsibilities, read this article on project manager vs. product manager roles.
These people know exactly what they need to complete a project and its limitations, so they’re the perfect fit to judge a plan’s sustainability. Make a list with all the names of the people who approved the plan and the dates when they did this.
Tip: Keep all approval documents (written or received via email) obtained during project planning to prevent further disagreements.
- Don’t start a project without having a project plan in place.
- Don’t expect to finish project planning in one day. You’ll need to review all secondary plans and then add them up to ensure no inconsistencies.
- You might need to update the project plan as the project progresses. Whenever a change occurs to a secondary plan, you’ll need to modify that specific part of the project management plan and keep the changes consistent.
- Always involve your team and client in project planning to prevent further misunderstandings.
- There is no single template for the perfect project plan. You can thus tailor it to your own needs and focus on the aspects that matter the most for your project. But never leave out the essential aspects like team members, cost, time, resources, risks, etc.
Experience shows that project planning fails if no system exists—SOPs and tools. For example, one way to monitor a complex project is to break it down into tasks and subtasks or daily and hourly work. For this, you’ll need a simple method for tracking time spent on each task (here are some of the best time-tracking software).
Building a project management plan is just one of a project manager’s many responsibilities. Check out our complete guide listing all the responsibilities.
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Alexandra Cote is a SaaS content writer and strategist with a passion for workplace productivity, social media marketing wonders, conversion rate optimization, artificial intelligence, and keyword research. Reach out to her via LinkedIn.