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.
October 25, 2022 · 10 min read

How to Write a Project Plan (with free Template)

🎁 Bonus Material: Free Project Plan Template

How to Write a Project Plan

Despite all of your hard work, the honest truth is that 70% of all projects will fail to meet their goals. But while there are countless reasons why projects fail — scope creep, budget overrun, lack of stakeholder support — there’s one roadblock that’s easily avoided.

A proper project plan is the most critical element when it comes to delivering success. Your project plan is the foundation of your entire project and provides an all-in-one guide for how you’ll get from A to B.

Planning is one of the first skills every project manager learns. So, why do so many PMs still get it wrong?

Unfortunately, many project managers mistake a project plan as simply a list of tasks to complete. When in reality, a project management plan is a collection of supporting and interconnected plans — from a stakeholder management plan, to your project schedule, communication plan, and risk management plan.

But bringing all of those resources into a single usable document is no small task.

Jump to a section:

In this guide, we’ll explain what goes into a proper project plan and give you an easy six-step process for planning any project, big or small.

What is a project plan? What does it include?

A project plan is a collection of formal planning documents that defines your project’s purpose, goal, scope, schedule, necessary resources, known risks, and more.

That’s a lot of elements to fit into a single document. But before we get into what goes into a project plan, it’s important to define two different types of planning you’ll engage in as a project manager:

  1. Project planning: is the process of defining aspects of a project, such as its scope, objectives, benefits, and underpinning tasks. The activity of planning is a collaborative team exercise led by the project manager.
  2. The project plan: also known as a project management plan, is a set of documents that outlines the approach taken to complete the project.

The planning process naturally leads to a project plan. Understanding how to make an actionable project plan involves a deep knowledge of all aspects of the planning process. This includes:

A lot goes into building a comprehensive project plan. But the end result is worth the effort.

An actionable project plan becomes the single source of truth for your team — something they can refer back to when they’re lost and rally around when times get tough.

But it’s also a lot of work. Which is, unfortunately, why so many project managers skip the full project planning process.

Do you really need a plan for every project?

While it might seem like overkill at times, it’s always recommended to create a project plan. Some plans may be more detailed than others, but there’s hidden value in going through the planning process each time you start a new project.

A project plan doesn’t just help you stay organized, it motivates your team, gives you data to ask for more resources, and can even help you avoid risks that could derail the entire project.

A proper project plan is the most critical element when it comes to delivering success.

But that’s not all. Here are 6 key differences you’ll see between teams that do and don’t have a project plan.

💚 With a project plan 💔 Without a project plan
Everyone has a clear view of the context surrounding the project and the rationale for its existence. Team members and stakeholders don’t truly understand why the project exists, leading to confusion and misalignment.
The entire project team understands the scheduling, allowing them to prepare for future tasks and manage their workloads. Teams become short-sighted, only being able to plan days in advance. This can lead to workload management issues, especially in busy teams.
You can plan your resources properly and advocate for the right team to help you get the job done. You’re left scrambling for more resources when the project gets tough, causing you to miss key deadlines.
Everyone has visibility of the stakeholders involved in the project, ensuring the right people are involved at the right time. Key stakeholders aren’t always known, leading to delays in decision-making, misalignment, and conflicts.
You identify risks early on, allowing you to plan and mitigate them before they turn into issues. Risks come up at the last minute — causing you to go over budget, miss deadlines, or compromise on quality.
Everyone knows exactly how much money they have to play with, helping you manage your budget correctly. There’s no visibility on costs, creating a risk that team members will spend more money than the project has available.

That’s a huge upside for the time it takes to create a project plan. But how much effort is truly involved in creating a detailed plan?

How to make an actionable project plan in 6 steps

The best way to master project planning is to continually ask yourself questions about the project ahead, covering the why, what, when, how, and who of your project environment.

Here is our six-step process for creating an actionable project plan:

How to make an actionable project plan in 6 steps

Step 1. Summarize the project’s background and purpose

This is essentially your project’s ‘why’. It gives you and your entire team a foundation to rally around. Fail to identify the purpose of a project upfront, and you may lose sight of what you need to achieve further down the line.

How to summarize your project’s purpose:

If you’re a project manager walking into a new project you should be able to get this information from your Business Case. If it isn’t there, or you don’t have a business case, ask your sponsor to provide some background on how this project impacts your business goals.

Otherwise, you may need to dig into your product strategy to discover the business case for this project.

👀 See this project planning step in action:

Most projects will be born out of either a problem or an opportunity.

Start your project plan by explaining what you’re here to solve and the benefit of solving it. This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a few lines or paragraphs.

For example:

👉 “Globex Ltd sells bespoke fitness merchandise to customers all across the globe via their website. Sally Jenkins, E-commerce Director and Project Sponsor, has recently noticed a big drop-off in mobile/tablet users during the website’s checkout process. This has directly contributed to a 62% loss in sales in Q2.

Following investigations, it was found that this was due to the website being non-compatible with modern mobile/tablet devices. This project, led by Scott Sinclair, the project manager, has been set up to lead a modernization of the website to deliver a better customer experience for mobile/tablet users and ultimately, increase sales back to forecasts.”

Step 2. Define your goals, objectives, and scope

With your ‘why’ identified, it’s now time to move onto the ‘what’. This is where you detail exactly what you are going to do to solve your problem or grasp your opportunity. Your goals and objectives are what starts to form the basis of your plan.

How to define your project’s goals, objectives, and scope:

Goals, objectives, and scope all link together and progress from high-level to lower levels of details. Here’s an easy way to think about their relationship:

👀 See this project planning step in action: The best way to define your goals, objectives, and scope is to brainstorm them together as a team in a workshop.

Work backward from your why statement and keep asking yourself, ‘what do/don’t we need to do to achieve that?’ to move you through the layers.

Define your goals, objectives, and scope

Here’s an example:

👉 “Scott works through defining the project goals, objectives, and scope with his team. They define one strand of the project as below:

Note: During this step, you may also define your definition of done and your success criteria. This is important for software projects, in particular, to ensure any new development meets your technological standards.

Step 3. Create a detailed project schedule

Every project is limited by the triple constraints — scope, time, and cost. With your scope and rationale defined, the next step is to decide how much you can do given the project’s timeline and what a reasonable schedule will look like.

This is where you begin to make your money as a project manager as you set a baseline for how things should progress, ready for you to control and monitor later on.

Gantt Chart showing the phases of a party planning project

How to create a detailed project schedule:

There are several techniques you can use to schedule a project:

  1. Firstly, you need to map out the project lifecycle stages that will take you from initiation to completion.
  2. At each of those stages, create an underpinning Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) of all the work items you need to complete.
  3. Then, use the 3-point estimating technique to estimate how long each one will take.
  4. Map these work items out using the Critical Path Method (CPM) to determine how they’ll all fit together over time.

👀 See this project planning step in action:

Getting the project scheduling step right is all about bringing your team together to brainstorm what needs to be done and when. Critically, you may also bring subject matter experts or experienced project managers in to lean on their past experience.

👉 “Scott gets his team together alongside a range of expert developers and another project manager who’s completed an E-commerce upgrade before. They work through creating a WBS before estimating and mapping the work to create a schedule.”

Mastering the art of project planning could be the difference between success and failure in your next project.

Step 4. Assess the budget and resources required to deliver on schedule

Your schedule and scope clear up the ‘time’ and ‘scope’ aspects of the triple constraints. Now, it’s time to talk about money.

How are you going to deliver the project on time and what resources do you need to do so?

How to assess your budget and resource needs:

First, you need to create a Cost Breakdown Structure (CBS). This is where you link costs and resources against your Work Breakdown Structure. Using this technique is a great way to ensure you don’t miss anything and assess each piece of work for an associated cost.

👀 See this project planning step in action:

There’s no magic bullet for this step in the planning process. Instead, it’s all about bringing the right people in to help you estimate the costs associated with the work you need to complete.

At this stage, the best project managers bring their finance team along for the ride, often leaning on other experts in Procurement and Resourcing to cover all the bases.

👉 “Scott creates a CBS to mimic his WBS from earlier on. To do this, he engages with a representative from Procurement to help him get initial quotes for software licenses and speaks to the Resourcing team to estimate the day rates for developers, business analysts, and testers.

Once he has all the costs together, he adds some contingency to his budget and sets a baseline for his project plan.”

Step 5. Clarify stakeholders, their roles, and how you’ll communicate with them

Nearly ⅓ of all projects fail because of a lack of involvement from the right stakeholders. So, it’s important to answer the question of who should be involved in your project and get the right people on board early on.

How to clarify your stakeholder management:

The stakeholder management process starts with stakeholder analysis — a process that involves identifying and categorizing everyone who is impacted or has influence over the outcome of your project.

Once your stakeholders are identified, you need to create a communication plan for how you’ll keep them informed. This plan should details on the regularity, medium, and content of your updates.

👀 See this project planning step in action:

Stakeholder analysis begins with your project sponsor, asking them whom they think should be involved in the project.

Once you have some initial names, get together with the project team to brainstorm who else to include. As part of your early engagement, it’s always best to simply ask stakeholders how they want to be kept involved, helping you form your communication plan.

👉 “Scott schedules a meeting with the sponsor, Sally, and asks her whom she thinks should be involved in the project. Sally provides a list of 12 people from across the E-Commerce, Marketing, IT, and Legal departments. Scott maps these stakeholders with the team and plans a series of weekly meetings, emails, and broadcast calls to keep everyone up to date.”

Pro tip: Create a Planio “issue” for each stakeholder to collect feedback and keep notes on their engagement.

Stakeholder Issue

Step 6. Consider the project risks and how you’ll mitigate them

No project runs in a vacuum. There’s always something out there that can cause things to go wrong. To protect against this, identify, plan, and manage risks at the earliest point possible to keep things progressing smoothly.

How to come up with a risk management plan:

There are a whole host of different risk management approaches, but start off with our free risk management template. To avoid any risks that could block your project, it’s always best to speak to other project managers about issues they’ve faced and overcome.

👀 See this project planning step in action:

Following the standard Identify → Plan → Action → Assess approach works well for risks, with the identification stage completed as part of a team workshop.

A fun way to do this is to run a project ‘pre-mortem’. In this exercise, you start by thinking of all the ways your project could completely fail. From there, you can identify the root causes of these failures and plan how to avoid them in the project.

👉 “Scott speaks to previous project managers who tell him the biggest risk will be securing knowledgeable development resources. To mitigate against this, Scott plans to get his resource requests in early and puts some extra budget aside to hire externally if required.”

Do Agile teams need project plans?

Many people think Agile project management teams don’t need project plans — but, they couldn’t be more wrong! In the same way a traditional project management team benefits from the structure, control, and governance of a project plan, Agile teams can reap the same rewards.

Saying that, there are a few differences to consider:

  1. Detail. The Agile approach is about learning, iterating, and improving. For that reason, long-term agile planning is completed at the start of the project, with detail defined as the project progresses.
  2. Outcomes over outputs. Similarly, Agile teams focus more on the outcome of their work rather than what the outputs will look like. For your project plan, this means focusing more on defining goals and objectives rather than getting into detail on the scope.
  3. Co-creation & ownership. Whereas traditionally, the project plan was owned by the project manager, in Agile teams, there’s a much stronger co-ownership ethos. As a project manager, shift your focus from it being ‘my plan’ to it being ‘our plan’ to get buy-in from the team from day one.

Plan for success and let Planio do the rest

Mastering the art of project planning could be the difference between success and failure in your next project. That’s because a great project plan is a central document to help you track, monitor, and control your project, helping you map a path to delivering for your customers.

But project plans are much more than simple task lists. They include every aspect of the why, what, when, how, and who of your project environment. To make the creation and control of your project plans easier, we always recommend using a project management software tool like Planio.

Planio brings everything you need for an actionable project plan into one place — including detailed task management with integrated cloud storage and code repositories, Agile boards (or calendars and Gantt charts), Wikis and team chat, and more.

No matter the size of your project, planio helps you engineer success by keeping you, your team, and your project plans together in one place!