This is a simple, actionable, step-by-step guide to help you write an effective project plan. Our free templates and examples will even help you get started and save time.
Project planning doesn't need to be as daunting as it sounds. A good project manager and a sturdy project plan are the two critical elements to managing a successful project.
This article will guide you through the entire project planning process, from managing team members, to Gantt charts to project management templates you can use for any project.
What is a project plan?
Before we begin, let's clear up the basics. A project plan should be your go-to resource for the entire project you have at hand. It should provide a clear outline of every step ahead to make your project a success and run as smoothly as possible.
Just like a project report, a project plan is usually created and maintained by the project manager. It's also used as a resource that's referred to by the entire team. A project plan should clearly outline a project's mission, timeline, deliverables, and much more.
What is project planning?
Project planning is the act of filling out a project plan and preparing for the project at hand. It also involves a certain amount of risk management. Most incorporate some degree of project management.
Note: Project management doesn't necessarily involve an event, which many people presume is the case with a project management plan.
A project can be anything that's a standalone piece of work. It could be anything from implementing a new tool or work process to moving offices to migrating data. Every company has some kind of one-off type project that needs planning to succeed.
The benefits of project plans
There are many benefits associated with having a project plan in place. While it would be impossible to list them all, here's a breakdown of the most important ones.
1. Establishes a project baseline
Project plans are essential project management tools because they establish a project baseline off the bat. Once you've determined a baseline, it's much easier to determine how well your project is coming along throughout its development.
A clear project baseline allows project teams and project managers to monitor things like project schedules, project progress, and project milestones with ease.
2. Provides a general outline
At the outset of the project planning phase, thinking about how all the tasks will get done can be daunting. Putting together a solid project plan can help solve this problem because it forces project teams to develop an outline for their project and determine when all the project's tasks and elements will be worked on.
Project plans usually account for major project milestones and deadlines, so you'll get a good idea of how and when everything will get done. This makes it easier to assign tasks and communicate transparently with clients and key stakeholders.
3. Contains essential information
As you start making your way through project phases, many project teams get bogged down with information and documentation. Project plans are often one of the first in-depth documents that project teams put together, but they're the first of many. It can be hard for team members to locate the information they need.
Since project plans are often foundational documents, they contain all the essential information that people need about a given project. That means they can act as reference points and resources for complex projects, providing all the details team members need.
4. Helps you determine what to expect
Anyone with experience managing projects knows that they're unpredictable at the best of times. Between changing requirements, miscommunications, new ideas, roadblocks, and other unexpected things that come up, it's likely that your plans will change at least a couple times.
It might seem contradictory, but project plans are important because they help you determine what to expect... even when changes come up. Basically, it's a lot easier to make changes to your planning process and project execution if you have a solid project plan in the first place. It helps you visualize your project's progress and how one element will ultimately affect another.
Trust us, you'll be much better equipped to deal with the unexpected if you had a clear idea of your project's goals in the first place.
How do I know if I need a project plan?
The project plan is an incredibly useful document for just about anyone. That means if you're working on a project, especially if it's larger scale, taking place over a long time or particularly complex, developing a project plan will do wonders for you and your project's success.
To get a little bit more specific, you should be using a project plan document if you answer yes to the following questions.
Do you want to...
- Track progress, keep everything on track, and minimize stress?
- Bring each project team member together and inspire everyone involved?
- Save money on labour, time, and resources?
- Ensure that everyone has enough work... not too much and not too little?
- Foster transparency and open communication?
- Give team members clarity on their roles and make sure that they're accountable?
- Keep everyone organized?
- Reduce risks and prepare yourself for change?
- Ultimately ensure the successful completion of your project?
The five core phases of a project
When talking about project plans, it can be helpful to refresh our memories about the five core phases of projects.
An awareness of the five core project phases helps project teams write project plans because it gives them a framework to work with. It's easier to plan a whole project when you think about how all the different project phases and tasks will fit into its development and lifecycle.
After all, even the simplest project plan will contain elements that apply to the five established project phases.
1. Project initiation
This is where a project begins. It represents the first steps that a project team takes in a new project. Project management normally establishes project objectives and goals as well as business case and overall reason for being.
2. Project planning
Hint hint, you will make your project plan within the project planning phase! In fact, it's the phase’s biggest deliverable. This phase is all about laying the groundwork and organizing everything you'll need to complete your project successfully.
Project teams also work on project methodology, project budget, resource management, project schedule, project dependencies, and a work breakdown structure (WBS).
3. Project execution
In this phase, you're putting your project management processes into motion. The bulk of your actual "project tasks" get done here. Your team will start working on and completing your project deliverables. You'll also be holding regular team meetings and providing frequent project status reports.
4. Project monitoring
This project phase often overlaps with project execution. All parties involved will want to monitor progress and determine how everything is coming along. Performance metrics and analysis are consulted in order to make sure the project's actual progress is in line with what was laid out in the plan.
5. Project closure
During the last phase of your project, all your work will come to an end and you'll be able to congratulate everyone on a job well done! Your project's final deliverables will be handed off, final meetings will be held, and overall successes and failures will be accounted for.
What core elements should I include in a project plan?
A project plan will vary depending on your business, your project at hand, and your team's working style. However, there are a few essentials that remain consistent in any project. The critical components of any project plan are:
This includes any internal or external people or project sponsor involved in the process who approved your project proposal. Make sure you record their name, title, core responsibility or responsibilities, and contact details.
Unlike the stakeholders, these are the team members who are solely responsible for your project's success.
Important files & documents
Any relevant project documentation or digital files that will act as a reference point throughout the project. This includes meeting minutes, product requirements, wiki pages, visual assets... the list goes on.
This is so crucial to ensure that everyone stays on track. A project timeline needs to be established and maintained as much as possible. A project could only last for a couple of weeks, but it could also continue over a span of years. People need to be able to plan and juggle their workload while considering the project at hand.
A very high-level task list needs to be included in your project plan. Each task may have a separate list of actions within it, and that can be a breakaway document.
Your project plan should take a holistic view of project tasks.
Each project will have a list of tasks and, alongside the calendar, those tasks need to be prioritized.
Let's take the role of a graphic designer for example. Graphic designers have many elements that they need to work on throughout project processes, and sometimes deadlines aren't enough. Graphic designers need to prioritize what holds the most importance and should be worked on first over other elements within their project schedules.
Gantt view calendar
This calendar style is used frequently in the project planning world. It's a great visual aid that provides an overview of different tasks and subtasks, how they'll overlap, and where they'll fall alongside other elements.
If you know how to use a Gantt calendar, it's highly recommended for project scope as well.
Milestones & wins
Project management always involves some kind of team management. No matter the size of your team, it's vital to identify milestones within your project process. You'll find that your team is always more motivated when each small goal is in sight, rather than when an end goal seems miles away.
Once you've identified milestones and your team reaches them, be sure to celebrate. It's a team win and deserves to be acknowledged.
The last core element in a project plan is the work that's been assigned and the people who are responsible for doing it. This element gives the project manager a good overview of their team as well as who's doing what.
This section will also act as a resource for the entire project team so they know who to turn to for what.
The steps to take to write a project plan
We've discussed the core elements of a project plan, but you still might need a little more guidance to get started writing one. You're in luck, because we've outlined the steps you need to take to create a project plan that'll fulfil all your project needs.
1. Introduce your project
This is where your project will first come to life. Before you get started on your project plan, you'll need to make sure you have a great project to work on in the first place! Introduce the project to your team, get your key stakeholders on board, establish your project's reason for being, and define your project goals.
2. Make an outline
Now that you've introduced your project and started to get excited about it, you'll need to dive a bit further into what will make it successful. Begin putting together a project outline by connecting your project goals with your project milestones with your OKRs (objectives and key results). Soon, you'll see the loose framework of your project begin to come together.
3. Consider using a project planning template
If this is your first time putting together a project plan (or you just want to save time in the process), think about using a project plan template for your project needs. We've got a great one you can use for free, and it'll make sure you don't forget any key elements or information in your documentation.
4. Define project scope
Project scope is yet another essential element of any project plan or project charter. Basically, it defines what is included within the framework of your project and what isn't. Make sure you're specific and clear in this section as it will be very important down the line.
Need additional help? We've got a project scope template for that.
5. Create a project timeline
Project plan documents are often created early on in the development process, so don't expect your schedule to be set in stone here. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to start thinking about how all your project tasks will fit together and how long everything will take to get done.
It's also often necessary to present stakeholders with project timelines early on in the process so they can get themselves organized too.
6. Make a communication plan
Many teams skip this step in their project plan, but we think it's essential. Tons of communication happens during the project planning process and it's easy to get lost, overwhelmed or miss key information. Avoid this blunder from the get-go by defining how all parties involved will communicate in your project plan.
7. Put everything together
Now that you've assembled all the key elements that'll make up your project plan, you’re ready to put everything together into an ideal project planning tool. Be sure to hold a meeting to go over your finished project plan and announce the official initiation of your new project!
8. Ensure that project stakeholders know how to use your project plan
The project plan is an incredibly useful document for everyone involved in a project. However, people will not use it if they don't know how to access it. Once your finished project plan is ready, make sure that everyone knows where to find it, how to use it, and any other relevant protocol information.
9. Look to your project plan for answers
Many teams make the mistake of spending tons of time on a project plan, only to leave it aside after the planning phase of their project is finished. Be sure to continue to use your project plan as a guiding document for the rest of your project development. If any changes need to be made, be sure to log them in your document.
10. Keep your project plan for future reference
You've put valuable time and effort into your project plan. Make sure you keep reaping the benefits of your work for years to come! If you're happy with your project plan, keep it as a template for future reference and you'll be able to use it when working on tons of exciting projects in the future.
Tips for the project planning process
A little further down in this article, we've supplied you with a project plan template. However, remember this is not the be-all and end-all of project plans. You'll need to adapt it to your own needs. So, here are some things to consider when adapting your project plan template.
Ask "outsider" questions
Take a step back from your project and ask questions as though you were alien to the project at hand and the company. Chances are, you're not just going to be working with internal stakeholders, but external contractors as well.
These people won't know the lingo you use, the nicknames you have for people on your team, or even your department contact details. Explain your project so that it can be understood by someone who knows nothing about it.
Collaboration is key
People excel better together. If you're a project manager and have a good idea of the talent you have on your team, consider how you can encourage people to work together so you can produce better results and make the process of getting there easier.
There's nothing wrong with delegation
A good project manager knows the strengths of delegation. You're not the only one responsible for the success of the project at hand. Don't be afraid to delegate. If you get stuck working on smaller tasks, it'll be challenging to maintain a holistic view of the project's overall progress.
Expect the best, prepare for the worst
It's essential to stay optimistic when working on any project; your team will feed off your positivity. However, it's also essential to remain realistic and admit when things are not going according to plan. Prepare for not hitting deadlines and exceptional circumstances, and you'll lead your team to success.
Stick to your mission
As you begin to dive into the weeds of a project, it's so easy to get side-tracked by problems that arise or tasks that you discover along the way. Make a note of them, certainly, but stay true to your project's mission.
Don't get led down paths that won't result in your project's success, and don't let your team go down those paths either.
Timelines are there for a reason
Any project timeline has been considered and set for a reason. Many people rely on timelines. Being late for one small task can have a domino effect on the rest of the project, so don't be that person.
A good workman never blames his tools
Great tools can really help project processes along. What tools would be useful for the project you're working on? Does your company already use those tools, or do you need to submit a proposal to pay for them?
If you're working with new tools, ensure that your team went through a thorough onboarding process to help them make the most of them. More on this later.
The best tools to create a project management plan
We'll close out this article with a breakdown of some of the best project management tools that can help guide you through any project.
You can add text, tasks, placeholders and lots more elements into Slite project documentation. You can even turn all your documents into templates!
When you're getting started with Slite, use the knowledge base tool to centralize your team's work and keep everyone aligned, no matter what kind of project you're working on.
Use the project planning template we've provided in collaboration with other templates. Ensure that your project processes are clear and shared with the right people.
Trello is a popular project planning tool for task lists and project status information. It's simple to use, free, and great for small to medium teams that need an overview of the tasks at hand, people responsible, and deadlines.
Its drag and drop format makes it user-friendly, and their free plan allows for a certain amount of file storage too. It's a great project planning software to create a roadmap with a collection of lists, cards, and boards.
Loom is a fantastic tool for remote teams that are looking for that personal touch when it comes to assigning tasks within a project process.
While recording a video of the speaker, you’ll be able to screen record and talk someone through a task, document, or onboarding process.
Keep your team aligned and in sync with each other by hosting regular video meetings. Most remote workers are familiar with Zoom because it's easy to access, works well across various devices, has a free plan that can get a lot done, and can host many people at the same time.
Zoom is a great tool to manage projects because you can check in on your project team and build more personal relationships with project contractors. It's one of our favourite project resources, even though we try to reduce live meetings as much as we can at Slite.
Not too many people know that you can invite people into your Slack workspace, even if they don't have a company email address. It's one of our favorite features it offers.
Consider building a project workspace within your company account and inviting key stakeholders to the channels they need to be aware of, whether they work for your company or not. Live chats are also great tools for quick chats and project updates!
Diagramming, whiteboards, and data visualization, all in realtime and all online. Lucidchart is a fantastic project planning software for teams looking to add a visual element to their project management.
Lucidchart allows for process mapping, chart design, and much more to help your entire process run smoothly.
It can be hard to establish a timeline for every task that makes up your project. It's good to set rough deadlines, but specific tasks may take longer or shorter amounts of time than initially anticipated.
Toggl can track how long each task takes and present you with data that helps make informed decisions on future timelines and priorities. It also syncs between devices and has the ability to help any project manager plan better.
The best Project Plan is one that gets completed
Hopefully, you've gained a wealth of knowledge throughout this article. From questions to ask yourself when writing a project plan, token phrases to remember, all the way through to extra tools you can use to help lift your project management experience, we hope we've provided you with some useful tips and guidance.
Project management is no easy quest, and it's one that runs smoother the more planning you do. We cannot stress enough the importance of giving yourself time to plan before diving into a new project.
When you spend time in the planning phase, you'll save even more throughout the entire project and lead a dynamic and agile team successfully to project completion.
A project plan template
As promised, here's a project plan template that you can adapt to your own project needs. The template is super easy to work with and should be the core document that you and your team rely on to succeed. You've got this.