Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
November 07, 2023 · 10 min read

How to create a project implementation plan

How to create a project implementation plan: Illustration in blues and white showing the title of the blog and some stacked bar graphs.

If you work in project management, your job isn’t done until your users are happy — but that isn’t always the case. Data from the Harvard Business Review shows that a meager 35% of projects worldwide are deemed successful by the people who build and use them.

As every project manager knows, it’s almost impossible to get from A to B on a project without something going wrong. That’s where a project implementation plan comes in.

An implementation plan guides your entire team through the who, what, when, and how of your project — providing clarity, alignment, and accountability for everyone involved.

This is especially important in software development projects, where terms such as deployment, release, go-live, and implementation get used interchangeably, causing endless confusion and misalignment.

Jump to a section:

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of a project implementation plan, including exactly what they are and how to create one. Then, we’ll give you some specialist advice on how to track your project’s implementation from the initial idea to shipping software.

What is an implementation plan? What is its purpose?

An implementation plan is a project document that clearly outlines the steps teams need to take to create and implement their project’s deliverables.

Whereas a project plan or strategic plan includes the high-level rationale, vision, and justification for a project, an implementation plan is more granular and focused on explaining the who, what, when, and how of the project delivery. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as a project action plan.

But is an implementation plan just another document that takes time to create but offers little in return? Absolutely not.

An excellent implementation plan will provide you with the following benefits:

Benefits of an implenetation plan

Project success lies in strong implementation.

The 8 essential elements of an implementation plan

An implementation plan is made up of several different elements. Some of these elements will originate in the plan itself (e.g., your task list), but some are pulled from other project documents (e.g., your scope will come from your business case or SoW).

Regardless of where they come from, a complete implementation plan provides a high-level view of the project environment alongside a detailed view of the things to be done, the people who will do them, and the measures of success.

The 8 essential elements of an implementation plan

Let’s look at the critical items of an implementation plan in more detail:

  1. Project goals & objectives. While a detailed view of the project’s goals and objectives will be held in the business case, a high-level reminder should be at the top of your implementation plan. This provides a reminder of ‘why’ the project exists and what it will achieve.
  2. Project scope. Again, a more detailed view of the scope will come from your business case or schedule of work, but your implementation plan should include the key scope items the team must deliver. This helps the team understand ‘what’ they are doing.
  3. Project deliverables. This is where the implementation plan comes into its own as you break down the project scope into specific deliverables. In the software development world, a deliverable may be a feature or bug fix, whereas in a process improvement project, it may be a process map or a user training session. This further defines the ‘what’ of your project but also explains the ‘how’.
  4. Tasks, due dates, and timelines. Once the project deliverables are defined, you need to break down the work required to create and implement them. For this, you’ll master task management to properly define, estimate, and plan your work and, ultimately, build out your timeline. This further defines the _‘how’ _but also brings to life the ‘when’.
  5. Team roles and responsibilities. As you’re building out the task list, you’ll need to assign each one to a team member. A foundation for this is to define the individual team roles and responsibilities so that it’s clear 'who' is expected to do what within the team, driving that accountability and clarity we discussed earlier.
  6. Success criteria. Perhaps the most overlooked part of an implementation plan but one of the most important is success criteria. This helps you define when a task, deliverable, or scope item is actually complete. This touches back on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of your implementation plan. For example, most software projects use a technique called definition of done to measure their success.
  7. Risk approach. While the details of this will come from your risk management plan, an implementation plan should include a high-level view of the critical risks and how to control them. Poorly managed risks can impact any of your project’s who’, what’, when’, and how’, so make the time to take risk management seriously.
  8. Tools and resources. Lastly, it’s good practice to include information about the tools and resources required for your implementation. This touches on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of your project delivery and may include guidance on the project management tools your team will use to manage the implementation effectively.

Like many things in project management, implementation plans look different from company to company and manager to manager.

The above sections are the core things we’d recommend including in all implementation plans, but you may choose to include other elements such as stakeholder management, quality management, change management, and communication plans.

Project plan vs. implementation plan vs. release plan

In the project and product management world, many terms and phrases get used interchangeably. This is especially true for people in agile development teams, where a mix of project plans, implementation plans, and release plans need to be clarified.

To help, we’ve put the three side by side to explain the key differences:

Project Plan Implementation Plan Release Plan
Definition and purpose Project plans are collections of sub-plans that describe how a project will meet the strategic goals and objectives. An implementation plan is a project document that clearly outlines the steps a team needs to take to create and implement their project’s deliverables. Release plans are used to plan the creation and release of the next version/iterations of a software product.
Who uses them? A Project Manager often manages project plans with inputs from other stakeholders, such as team members or a project sponsor. The project manager manages and controls an implementation plan with inputs from other project documents and team members. Depending on your team structure, a release plan is used by a software development project management or product owner with inputs from development team members and other stakeholders.
What type of projects are they used for? Any type, including software development, construction, and business change. Any type, including software development, construction, and business change. Unique to software development projects and product teams.

In summary:

Note: Agile teams managing release planning for a software product may choose to use a release plan instead of an implementation plan.

How to create an implementation plan in just 6 steps

Now that we know what implementation plans are, why they’re useful, and how they differ from other types of plans, it’s time to actually get into making one.

Luckily, it’s a pretty structured step-by-step process that will give you a clear route to getting your project delivered by the end.

Step 1. Draw down from your product strategy, vision, and goals

Your implementation plan needs to align with your organization’s strategic goals, whether that’s a project or product strategy.

Most of this information will be in other project documents, such as a business case, project plan, or product strategy template. While you want to include some of this information in your implementation plan, the challenge is balancing providing enough context without swamping the team in detail.

Real-world example:

Jenny’s organization aims to improve its customer experience ratings by enabling new digital solutions.

Questions this section of the implementation plan should answer:

Additional Planio resources to help:

Step 2. Select the scope, create the deliverables, and define “good”

Now that your implementation plan has a purpose, it’s time to begin breaking down and documenting what you and the team need to deliver.

Remember that when defining your scope, it’s essential also to consider what’s out of scope (i.e, what you’re not going to do) to avoid scope creep later on. With the scope understood, break it down to individual deliverables and define what good looks like from a customer perspective.

Real-world example:

Jenny is assigned a project to develop a new e-commerce website. She breaks the e-commerce site’s scope into deliverables, including a homepage, a search page, 30 product pages, and a checkout page.

Questions this section of the implementation plan should answer:

Additional Planio resources to help:

Step 3. Identify tasks, estimate timings, and map a timeline

Deliverables don’t just create themselves. For the next stage of your implementation plan, take the time to identify the tasks that need to be completed, estimate how long each task will take, check for dependencies, and then map them onto a timeline.

Identify tasks, estimate timings, and map a timeline

A lot goes into this step, so you may want to complete it alongside subject matter experts or bring in the knowledge of an experienced project manager that’s worked on a similar project before.

Real-world example:

Jenny analyzes the homepage deliverable, identifying and estimating the following tasks: stakeholder interviews (5 days), detailed graphic design (10 days), development (12 days), testing (2 days), and deployment (1 day).

Questions this section of the implementation plan should answer:

Additional Planio resources to help:

Step 4. Define team roles and assign team members to tasks

As the implementation plan begins to take shape, it’s time to start thinking about ‘who’ is going to contribute and ‘how’. To do this, you’ll want to define roles and responsibilities for team members and assign task owners.

Most projects have specific roles, such as business analysts, software developers, or process trainers. But, if your project is unique, you may need to define roles and responsibilities from scratch.

Groups set up in Planio to define roles

With the roles defined, it’s time to fill them. While this can be restricted by budget and resource availability, getting the right people is crucial for success, so ensure you consider the skills, seniority, and character traits you need within the team.

Real-world example:

For the tasks in Jenny’s homepage deliverable, she brings on board a business analyst (Sally), a designer (Manjeet), a software developer (Mark), and a tester (Roberta).

Questions this section of the implementation plan should answer:

Additional Planio resources to help:

Step 5. Consider your risks and put controls in place

By this point, you’ll have a pretty good view of how you’ll get your project to the finish line. But as we all know, not everything in life goes to plan.

To make your implementation plan more robust, take the time to consider your project risks and the measures you can take to avoid them. To help, consider risks through different lenses, including risks to stakeholders, resources, budget, and your business environment.

Consider your risks and put controls in place

Pro Tip: A great way to identify risks is to study lessons learned from past projects, especially those that have failed!

Real-world example:

Jenny’s project tester, Roberta, has a history of poor health and may require time off work at short notice. To mitigate the impact of this risk, Jenny asks her business analyst (Sally) to learn the testing process and systems to provide cover if needed.

Questions this section of the implementation plan should answer:

Additional Planio resources to help:

Step 6. Choose your tools and get started

With your implementation plan completed, the last thing to do is to select the project management tool you’ll use to manage the implementation of your project.

Why do you need a project management tool?

From the moment you launch your implementation plan your project will change and adapt. To help you stay on top of things, project management tools such as Planio help project managers to:

Screenshot showing the issue list with three issues overdue and a checklist item informing that they need to be moved to the next sprint

Once you’ve chosen and configured your tool, it’s time for you and the team to get started and begin creating your project deliverables!

Final tips for creating an implementation plan

To finish, let’s look at some final tips for creating a fantastic implementation plan:

When should you create an implementation plan?

We’d recommend creating your project implementation plan during the Planning phase of your project. Do it any earlier, and you’ll give yourself too much re-work, do it too late, and you’ll miss crucial implementation time.

How detailed does an implementation plan need to be?

Implementation plans need to be detailed regarding the tasks to complete, how they will be done, when to complete them, and who will be responsible. Don’t go too detailed in other areas, such as objectives, scope, and vision though.

What are some common mistakes to avoid?

A project manager’s biggest mistake when making their implementation plan is relying on assumptions and not making it detailed enough. Remember, an implementation plan should be able to be understood by everyone, so ensure it has the necessary detail to become a foolproof guide.

An implementation plan is the one source of truth for the entire team, bringing everyone together and aligning them on what needs to be done, by who, and when.

Project success lies in strong implementation

With so many projects failing worldwide, project managers need a way to guarantee the coordination, alignment, and success of their initiatives.

An implementation plan is a great way to clearly show the who, what, when, and how of your project delivery and provide the entire team with the information and confidence they need to succeed.

But plans change, and project administration can become unmanageable when they do.

That’s why we’d always recommend a project management tool, such as Planio, to help you keep your implementation planning in a place that’s easy to update, track, and collaborate on to save you time, energy, and stress on your next project!

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