When was the last time you got lost in your project work because you didn’t plan ahead? To increase your chances of success, you need a defined plan. Unfortunately, not having one is still common in practice for smaller teams in particular.
Picture this: Your task list is forever growing, new team members are showing up every three weeks, and your client is always asking for last minute changes.
Chaos, chaos, and again chaos. What truly matters is to cut through it and separate real results from the clutter that you find yourself in.
Here’s where project planning comes in. The project management practice depicts a step-by-step process that helps you establish everything you need to do on a project. From setting expectations to creating a clear path towards reaching your goals.
The tide is shifting towards the digital side of project planning though. According to GetApp Lab’s report, more companies are starting to use project management and planning tools and 56.4% of project managers use them daily. In fact, 95% of these project management practitioners use more than one tool on a regular basis.
Coming back to our subject, project planning is not something to go light on. That’s why we’ve created this complete guide to help you get started:
- What is project planning?
- How to plan a project from start to finish using project planning software
- Best project planning software options
What is project planning?
Project planning is the second project management phase following the initiation part of any project.
Briefly put, project planning will tell you what needs to be done, who’s working on what, how the team’s going to communicate, what extra resources you’ll need, and when is the work scheduled to be completed.
Due to the variety of decisions made during this planning stage, it’s critical that you don’t skip this part.
A project plan’s typical structure (can vary slightly from one project to another) includes the following activities:
- Establishing the project’s title
- Clarifying the project’s background and context
- Defining the project’s objectives
- Organizing tasks
- Selecting project team members
- Creating a communications plan
- Identifying risks and planning to prevent them
- Setting the project’s schedule
- Deciding upon a project budget
- Choosing the project’s resources
- Reviewing the final plan and getting stakeholders’ approval
Why Do You Need Project Planning?
Knowing what to do, how a task should be completed, and when your deadline is up can be essential for any project’s evolution.
Planning before moving on to work on a task can also keep your team’s work organized, help you save time during execution, and cut down on project costs.
Rushed planning might determine you to miss some of the essential aspects. For instance, communication is one project aspect that you might miss.
Writing a loose communications plan or failing to build one could cause team members to make mistakes. But what is a communications plan in the first place? It’s a formal document that contains all details on who receives project updates, when someone can deliver them, and which channels, methods, and tools can be used for information delivery and feedback.
With a detailed and accurate plan in place, everyone knows exactly what they have to do and which procedures to follow in case unexpected errors show up.
Keep in mind
A well-crafted project management plan can increase your chances of project success. Organized tasks, roles, and backup plans ensure that you’re prepared for almost any obstacle that could postpone your project. So, before moving on to executing your tasks, make sure you’ve created a comprehensive project plan.
How to plan a project from start to finish using project planning software
The easiest way of planning your project from start to finish is by using online project planning software.
Thanks to its convenience, you can keep track of your project’s status and all-time documents in one secure system/platform. Ideal in case you need to follow-up on archived projects or use them as a reference for future ones.
Project planning software doesn’t usually exist on its own since it’s commonly part of a complete project management solution. This is because people have in mind more than planning when they’re looking for a solution. There are some dedicated tools though that you can use to partially plan your projects (for example Gantt Chart software).
Most project managers will be interested in a complete project management software to help them manage a project from start to finish even when only looking for a project planning tool. They’re also looking for complementary features to help them with other duties such as invoicing, time tracking, reporting, and so on. This is why complete project management tools come with features to fulfill these needs too.
So, why work with a project planning platform in the first place?
Although a project planning software isn’t mandatory, using one can significantly help you planning projects from start to finish. You’ll no longer have to do admin work like holding unnecessary status meetings, approving tasks, and asking for specific documents via email as part of it will be automated and made readily available by the system.
Imagine not using any technology for project planning. Your team would get their tasks on post-it notes and all documents would be scattered all over the office. They would have to meet in person to update each other about the progress of their tasks and draw endless timelines on walls or glued paper to include everyone’s schedule. How scalable is that?
The good news is that you can manage all project planning steps through a combination of tools. It’s even better if you do it all from a single place. This way you reduce costs and make sure that all data is unified across all departments, leaving no room for misinterpretations.
For some inspiration, take a look at this list of some project planning software we recommend below or check out these project management tools.
But where do you move on to after picking a project planning tool?
Remember that you should never skip the project’s initiation phase. This part helps you find out your client’s goals, requirements, and if you have the right resources to complete your project or not. For this, a client meeting is held.
You can only start creating exact project plans after discussing project targets and outcomes with your client. A project management plan is a guide that shows a team how they can reach general business goals and particular project objectives at the same time.
Simply put, a project management plan needs to answer the following questions:
- What do you need to do?
- When should you do a task?
- When should the project be completed?
- How much will the project cost?
- Who’s in charge of a specific task?
- What are each member’s responsibilities?
- What communication methods you’ll use?
- How will you measure the project’s status?
Throughout the entire planning process, keep in mind that every step you map out needs to be clearly documented and written. This prevents confusion and ensures that everyone on your team knows exactly what they have to do at the right moment.
Creating a general project plan
Before you start working on a project, establish its most important details that help you identify it: name, ID, and client. For some project planning tools, set other details such as workflow, billing method, hours estimate, and more.
Project details in Paymo
The next step of project planning is to think of all the tasks that need to be completed from a project’s start to its finish. Create full task lists that can group and structure all tasks you need to do.
A UX task list example from Paymo
As a project manager, you’ll need to get everyone’s feedback on task planning. For instance, if you don’t have a technical background, reach out to your software engineers. They’ll tell you how long it will take for a feature to ship given the current resources and deadlines. Otherwise, chances are you won’t know what tasks to prioritize when going into production.
For processes like this one and other types of complex task structures, you might also want to create subtasks. These help you break down larger chunks of work into much smaller, less-frightening ones and create clear structures for your team. For example, one of your web developers might be sick one day. With subtasks, another team member knows how much of his colleague’s task has been completed and can continue the other person’s work from where they left it.
One of the easiest documents to structure your project’s tasks is an activity list:
An example of a simple activity list
Another way of organizing tasks during project planning is through a detailed table that can show you all deadlines, elapsed time, costs, and more:
A Table View in Paymo
If you’re looking for a visual method of organizing your activities, try Kanban boards:
A digital marketing team using a Kanban board in Paymo
Kanban is a visual task organization tool built on top of the task management process. A typical Kanban board consists of a series of activities in the form of cards that you can move from one project stage another column until you complete them. And it can be used for project planning too!
While using project planning software to create a plan and organize tasks is a solution for small teams, larger organizations might want to put every detail on paper.
Before setting up project tasks, invite the whole team to participate at an initial meeting and contribute with their insights for the general project plan.
For on-site teams, this is easy. All team members gather into a conference room and offer their feedback on how the plan should be developed based on their expertise.
To avoid this, make sure that nobody bumps into any technical issues. Some employees can use this as an excuse to turn off their cameras and be less active in the conversation.
Also, keep everyone engaged. Diversify your questions and try to get the entire team to answer them. This way all employees get to say something at least a few times.
Change the questions and their timing to have more productive meetings. Knowing that someone might ask them a question at any time makes them more likely to actively listen and take part in the conference.
Appointing your team and distributing duties
But you can’t have tasks without a team that has clear roles and responsibilities. All projects need a project manager or team leader to supervise the project development process.
As a project manager, you decide who’s responsible for what. Project planning tools help you in this sense and allow you to assign a person to a task and keep track of their progress. Once done, they’ll be notified and directed to the task with full details on how to complete it. But only if you’ve equipped them with the required information.
You can outsource your talent by hiring a freelancer or external collaborator. These new team members can then join your virtual workspace even if they’re not part of your company.
Alternatively, stakeholders can become a part of your workspace. This makes it easier for them to keep up with the project’s status and suggest changes if needed.
Each task should be paired with a person responsible for it. In Paymo, you can choose who’s going to work on a task and pick a project manager with a few clicks:
Assigning users in Paymo
You can also manage all your account users from a single view to see their overall progress:
Managing users in Paymo
Opting for a communication method
Communication is the key to a project’s success. And it starts with project planning. Effective messaging and collaboration helps you avoid mess ups in the project development process.
A clear communication plan shows everybody when and how they should communicate. It also ensures that everybody is up to date with the latest project updates.
The problem here is the same one we discussed on meetings. While teams who work in the same location can get up and reach out to a person to clarify something, it gets a bit more difficult for remote teams.
Currently, one of the easiest ways to talk to your colleagues is through virtual workspaces like Slack. Slack allows you to create separate channels for different departments or random channels for off-topic discussions whenever you want to take a break or share a funny video.
But you probably won’t want to slack off too much if you want to finish your project on time. Project planning tools give you the option to comment on tasks in real-time to keep all updates in context.
Comments on a task
What if you have discussions on separate topics that concern everyone on the project team? No worries. To update them about it, use the discussions tab:
A discussion in Paymo
Another advantage of project planning software is that you can attach your documents to their tasks and store them in the cloud. This means you can share documents straight from the virtual workspace of a project or individual task from any device even when you’re on the go.
Sharing documents in Paymo
On-site teams use these project planning tools as often as remote employees do. So test a few to see which ones are the most efficient for your team.
To choose an option, find out more about the types of information your clients need, how they want to be updated on a project’s status, and what quality standards you should follow.
Identify and prevent risks
There are some things the project manager has to decide without any help from technology. Among those aspects are risks: what could go wrong and what are we going to do if something bad happens? You can identify risks through brainstorming, design-thinking methods, or your own experience based on previous projects and research.
Having experienced members on your team can ensure that your risk management decisions are the right ones.
Project Planning Tip
Create a fictional scenario of a risk occurrence to see how they would affect your project and come up with possible ways of handling risks.
When it comes to estimation, you can’t really use project planning software accurately. Usually, project managers use a series of tools and calculations to determine realistic estimates.
The most common technique for estimating costs is Expert Judgement. Through it, project managers use their own experience, expertise, and knowledge to establish an estimate when it comes to project management or product development. But it’s not just project managers who can offer useful advice. Any team member, team leader, or external collaborator can provide insight based on their own past involvement in projects.
But cost estimates are not used just at an internal level. They are needed whenever you want to show your client approximately how much the project will cost them. Even freelancers use them.
Usually, estimates are sent to a client for approval before work on the project starts. What project planning software can do in this case is to create an estimate template and calculate your final costs:
An estimate in Paymo
You need to justify and get stakeholder approval for all funds because you depend on them throughout all project phases. Divide costs according to departments and priorities, but keep your center goal (the one you chose at the beginning) in mind.
Create the project schedule
Move on to estimate how much time your team needs to complete each task and the project as a whole. To make sure that everybody completes their duties on time, set due dates. These are important because often one task depends on the previous one and delaying one could derail your entire project.
Project Planning Tip
Make realistic estimates to help you fulfill client needs and maintain a balanced work environment where employees won’t have to work endless after-hours to finish the project on time.
Also, consider your task priorities starting with project planning. By establishing exactly which activities need to be completed before moving on to another task, you’ll ensure that no activity is left behind and that you’ll finish work on time.
Task priorities in Paymo
Gantt Chart example
One way of getting accurate estimates is by taking a look at how long previous activities took.
However, this is harder to do if you haven’t tracked time before and have no data to begin with. Time tracking, especially time reports, help you find recurrent problems and improve your work.
See our list of time tracking software and try them for your next projects.
Don’t forget to talk to your team to see how much time each individual needs to work on their own tasks. Add it all up and you’ve got a fairly accurate schedule estimate.
Create a resource management plan
A resource plan should include everything you’re going to use during a project.
Commonly, people are seen as resources too when it comes to resource management. While the previous sections focused on choosing and assigning team members or establishing a communications method, the attention is now on how you can recruit, train, and manage your employees.
Some of the things you should consider during project planning for the resources plan are:
- How you’re going to motivate and reward team members
- Whether you’re going to outsource talent or not
- How you’re planning on training employees
- What risks the team can face when it comes to the staff (e.g. sick leaves, resignations, work safety)
- How you’re going to evaluate the project team
- What team building activities you can plan
To better organize your team’s schedule during project planning, use a resource scheduler. Also known as a team scheduler, this tool offers a complete view of exactly who’s working on what at a certain moment. Depending on the software you’re using, it also allows you to add sick leaves and holiday breaks or set meetings.
Resource scheduler in Paymo
But resource management is not just about the people. Some of the other physical factors you need to acquire and manage are equipment, technologies, machinery, facilities, vehicles, authorizations, locations (buildings and land), and raw materials.
If you’re thinking of using technology during project planning, the first resource you have to add is a project planning software. This type of software is also the place where you store all the information on the other tools and resources used. It might come off as a no-brainer for most, but it’s worth mentioning.
Skip straight to our list of recommended project planning tools by clicking here.
Among these resources are the tools you’ll need to complete each individual activity. For this purpose, choose from project management tools, Gantt Charts, graphs, Kanban boards, and anything else that your tasks require.
Getting the right resources isn’t enough. You’ll also need to consider how much these cost and the time needed to use them. You might now have to make adjustments to your financial plan and schedule.
But, picking your resources first can exceed the client’s planned budget. This means you’ll still have to change your resource plan again. That‘s why it’s sometimes better to create time and budget estimates as you choose the tools you’re going to work with.
Not all project planning tools have a resource management function. So a workaround would be to add all your resources to a spreadsheet which you can attach to a project.
Review your plan
Never finish a plan without reviewing it. Go over your project management plan until every detail is clear enough to both you and your team.
Making changes after you’ve already made a decision is normal. What matters is that you don’t make any large mistakes during project planning.
Plans can change throughout execution too. Some things happen unexpectedly. It’s not uncommon for a client to ask for changes even if you’ve already agreed upon something else.
Don’t be afraid to ask for more resources, time, or money to help you complete the project and meet the client’s requirements.
Get your team involved in the review process by having each member in charge of revising their own tasks. Do this with the help of project planning software that makes all your information available on one single platform.
Present your project management plan and get approval
You might have already gotten your client’s approval on the budget by sending them an estimate (as mentioned before). But, a client or stakeholder should always take a closer look at the full project management plan before you get the green light to start working on the project.
To ensure that the client has understood your plans, present the plan in great detail. The point of this presentation is to clarify possible problems and prevent misunderstandings.
Often, approval can be as simple as sending out an email containing the plan to all stakeholders and asking for their approval.
Also, create a list of their names and the dates when they approved the project management plan. Then, make sure to save all emails to prevent disagreements.
You should never neglect project planning if you want to bring your project to a successful end.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend endless hours and money on this project management stage though.
What project planning requires is patience and a close attention to details. Before making any plans, have a meeting with your client to ensure that you understand their needs. Also, discuss all requirements with your team to pick the right people for each task.
Never leave your team out of the project plan. Everyone needs to bring their own feedback when it comes to planning so you can add all backup alternatives to the final project plan. This guarantees that your colleagues know exactly what to do regardless of what’s been done before them.
Think of a project management plan like a complex map. It tells you the easiest routes but also prepares you to face any risks by creating alternative paths for you to follow.
Best project planning software options
Choosing the right project management tool for your company isn’t always easy. Truth is that each tool works in different ways. While there’s no such thing as a perfect project planning system, each one provides an essential feature for your project. All you have to do is think about your own priorities.
To help you a bit, here are 6 of the best project planning tools you can try first:
Paymo is a project management tool that allows you to manage your work and projects from start to finish, handle all your project tasks, track your time, and bill your clients at the same time. The entire project planning software revolves around switching between projects and clients.
To organize tasks, choose from a series of views to create simple to-do lists, detailed task lists, Kanban boards, or Gantt Charts. With its advanced task management tools, you can structure your activities according to their priorities and filter them to finish work on time.
You also have the option to track the time you spend working on each task. Then, turn the data into detailed time reports. You can use these for future schedule estimation. If communication’s been an issue, discussions and real-time comments support team collaboration regardless of the project’s stage.
Pricing: Free or paid plans starting at $9.56 user/month.
Start planning your projects with Paymo. Work collaboratively and handle all tasks from start to finish.
Scoro is a project planning solution that combines project, client, and task management with billing and reporting to track your performance in real-time.
Like most project planning tools, Scoro allows you to get a full bird’s-eye view of any project on a single page. This includes how much time you spend on a task, what invoices or expenses where sent, comments made, attached files, and more.
If you’re looking to schedule your kickoff meeting, do this from the team calendar. This also shows you when your team has the time to participate in a meeting and bring their feedback to project planning.
Pricing: Starting at $22 user/month.
Redbooth is a project planning software that allows you to organize your tasks through Kanban boards, Gantt Charts, or lists according to their priority and track the time you spend on each activity. Also, pick from several project templates if you don’t feel like coming up a plan from scratch.
Additionally, you can create Trend Reports to see what everyone is working on and how their productivity levels evolve in time. Then, filter these reports according to workspace, users, and status. This helps you identify existing problems and prevent future mistakes.
With the paid plans, you also get access to HD video conferencing (through Zoom), direct messaging and chats, and voice calling tools.
Pricing: Free plans and paid plans starting at $9 user/month.
Freedcamp is a planning solution for both personal and business purposes. So whether you’re looking to organize your next vacation or work project, this tool helps you create task lists, Kanban boards, or Gantt Charts.
And if your tasks are a bit more complex, create subtasks by dividing your main activities into smaller sections. Also, if you don’t want your team’s leader to see all tasks, make personal activities private so only you have access to them.
For advanced project planning, create calendars with milestones or due dates. Collaborate on them to avoid an endless row of emails you wouldn’t keep up with it.
Pricing: Free and paid plans starting at $3.99 for an owner and $0.99 for each added user/month.
Mavenlink is an online software that combines project and portfolio management with resource management, accounting, team collaboration, and business intelligence in a single platform.
The tool helps you during project planning by showing all tasks on a timeline through Gantt Charts. This lets you schedule activities and identify dependencies between them. Turn all project plans into templates so you’ll re-use them for future projects.
To make project collaboration faster, pair each task with an on-file feedback option. This allows team members to add a comment or visual graphic to guide the design process and prevent versioning misunderstandings.
Pricing: Starting at $19 user/month.
If you’re looking for a simpler way to do project planning, Hitask organizes projects, tasks, and events on a unique dashboard. It also allows you to share files and track the time you’re spending on activities.
Group all tasks according to a project, task or project type, due date, or the person who’s in charge of them. Your team is automatically notified (email and in-app push notifications) when they get a task and receives all necessary details for them to know when to start working on an activity.
Pricing: Free plan and paid plans starting at $4/month (individual users) and $25 user/month (teams).
The real work starts after project planning.
While a project management plan is essential, you complete most tasks during the next stage – execution. This is your chance to put all plan details into action and prove the real value of your plan.
This step is sometimes paired with monitoring. This is because the main duty of the project manager is to supervise team members and make sure they follow the plan.
Successfully completing all tasks proves that your project management plan has indeed been built correctly. Thus, you can use the same or similar project planning process for your future projects as well.
But the real role of project managers lies in their ability to adapt to change. This means that the documents you’ve created before execution might not always be part of the final version of the project plan.
Risks are sometimes unpredictable. Even if you plan for them. Avoiding unexpected dangers or fix a problem that’s not part of the initial plan is what differentiates good project managers from great ones.
Have any other project planning tips that worked for you? Are you using project planning software for this specific stage? Share your opinions in the comments below! Happy planning!