Abraham Lincoln said: “give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” And Yogi Berra shared: “if you don’t know where you’re going, then you’ll end up someplace else.” The moral of these wise declarations is simple, clear and, indeed, timeless: investing the required amount of time, effort and other necessary resources in planning is never a mistake. On the contrary, it is the gateway to success. And that is why learning how to write a project plan might be the most critical skill that a project manager can cultivate.
What Should be Included in a Project Plan?
The first and most important thing to clarify is that a project plan is an integrated collection of multiple sub-plans. As the Project Management Institute points out in its Project Management Body of Knowledge (6th Edition), on a typical project there are nine sub-plans that, together, compose the overall project plan:
- Scope Management Plan: policies, procedures and documents related to how the scope will be defined, confirmed and managed throughout the project.
- Schedule Management Plan : policies, procedures and documents related to how the schedule will be created, executed and controlled throughout the project.
- Cost Management Plan : policies, procedures and documents that relate to how cost will be estimated, budgeted, managed, monitored and controlled throughout the project.
- Quality Management Plan : policies, procedures and documents that relate to how quality and compliance will be demonstrated, managed and confirmed throughout the project.
- Resource Management Plan : policies, procedures and documents that relate to how resources (both team and physical) will be estimated, obtained, managed, allocated and controlled throughout the project.
- Communications Management Plan : policies, procedures and documents that relate to how all relevant internal and external stakeholders will be engaged throughout the project.
- Risk Management Plan : policies, procedures and documents that relate to how risk is identified, analyzed, prioritized, and managed throughout the project.
- Procurement Management Plan : policies, procedures and documents that relate to what, how and when goods and services from either the performing organization or outside the project (external sources) will be acquired.
- Stakeholder Engagement Plan : policies, procedures and documents that relate to how stakeholders will be engaged, based on their expectations and impact, throughout the project.
When learning how to write a project plan, it is important to bear in mind two key considerations:
The first is that these nine sub-plans, which compose the overall project plan, do not exist in isolation. Rather, they are integrated and holistic. For example, while developing the procurement management plan the project manager may determine that it is more expedient to purchase a piece of equipment that is required for the project from an external source, instead of borrowing it from another department within the organization that is currently using it. However, the cost management plan may have a policy which states resources that exist within the organization cannot be procured from external sources.
In this kind of scenario, the project manager must use her professional judgement to decide how to proceed. She may escalate the matter to a project executive or sponsor and request an exception to the procurement policy. Or, she may decide to borrow the required equipment from within the organization, but extend the schedule to account for the fact that it is not immediately available. Ultimately, whatever option is chosen, she must document the decision and demonstrate that it was based on the best available information at the time.
The second thing to keep in mind when learning how to write a project plan, is that these nine sub-plans are not static. They need to be updated throughout the project, either on an as-needed basis or at predefined points.
What is a Project Plan Template?
Project plan templates help project managers save time and effort by pre-populating a new plan with tasks, milestones, interdependencies, resources, budgets, and so on. Templates can derive from an existing project, or out-of-the-box.
Naturally, no two projects are 100 percent identical. As such, while project plan templates are practical, they do not replace the need for robust, data-driven project planning. For example, in the week, months or years between an old project and new one the cost of availability of resources may have changed, new risks or regulations may have emerged, stakeholder expectations may have shifted, and so on. While out-of-the-box templates are certainly helpful, some degree of customization will always be required.
How Do You Write a Project Plan that Succeeds vs. Struggles?
There is no single, established formula for creating a project plan. Not only do different organizations have various approaches, but within organizations departments and teams usually have their distinct preferences and paradigms. And since these departments and teams are constantly changing, a method of how to write a project plan that worked in the past may no longer apply.
However, generally there are some key project planning best practices that all organizations and project managers should embrace, including:
- When feasible and practical to do so, take a “bottom-up” approach in which team members help determine task assignments, duration estimates, and other project plan aspects.
- Set S.M.A.R.T. goals for the team. This is an acronym which ensures that goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound.
- Do not underestimate the critical importance of a comprehensive risk management plan! While there may be a significant amount of pressure to launch the project and start moving forward, neglecting to identify, analyze, prioritize and document risks — and just as importantly, ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are aware of the risks and accept them — can lead to major problems down the road. As J.R.R. Tolkien warned: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near one”.
- The right portfolio and project management software is essential for effective and efficient project planning. Look for a solution that: is cloud-based, features multiple out-of-the-box templates for various use cases (e.g. customer rollout, marketing campaign, etc.), and has a suite of collaboration tools to help internal and external stakeholders share ideas about the plan, and stay informed as the project unfolds.
The Final Word on How to Write a Project Plan
Writing a project plan is both a science and an art. The former because there are some fundamental considerations and best practices. The latter because no two project plans are the same, and the more experience that project managers (and others who are involved in the planning process) acquire, the better and more confident they will become.