Project planning refers to the phase in project management in which you determine the actual steps to complete a project. This includes laying out timelines, establishing the budget, setting milestones, assessing risks, and solidifying tasks and assigning them to team members.
Project planning is the second stage of the project management lifecycle. The full cycle includes initiation, planning, execution, and closing.
A project plan is a document that lays out the key information of a project. This can vary depending on the organization and project. The components of a project plan typically clarify:
Scope and goals: A project plan should make clear what the project is aiming to achieve.
Schedule: The schedule outlines when the project will start and end, how long tasks are expected to take, and when milestones should be reached.
Tasks and milestones: Tasks are the components of work that have to be completed in order to achieve milestones, and eventually the entire project. Milestones are a set of tasks, and define the end of a phase of the project. For example, completing a website prototype in a project to redesign a company’s website would be considered a milestone.
People: A project plan generally defines which individual is in charge of what task.
Documentation: A project plan might include links to other important charts and documents, like RACI charts, a project charter, budget, or risk management plan, so that it’s easy to find key information.
A template can provide project managers with a starting point that they can customize to their needs. Many are available for free download online like this project plan template, from the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate, which uses Google sheets. Other templates use Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Microsoft Excel.
Image from Google Project Management: Professional Certificate.
Your exact project plan might look different depending on the preferences of the project manager and the organization. Generally, however, you can start with determining your timeline before going on to solidify tasks, milestones, and roles, and compiling other important documents.
The cornerstone of the project plan is often the timeline or schedule. A timeline should include the date you’ll begin and expect to end the project, how long it’ll take to finish each task and milestone, and the dates you expect tasks and milestones to be completed.
Project managers often begin creating schedules around hard constraints determined by stakeholders. Do you need to design and produce a new toy before the holiday shopping season? You’ll want to make sure your schedule reflects this. Be sure to speak with team members to get a sense of how long each task typically takes. You may also want to include time buffers for tasks that involve some risk.
Tools at this stage you can use include:
Work breakdown structure
Once you know when tasks, milestones, and the whole project should be completed, you can determine what resources are needed at what point in the project, and which of your team members will work on each task. This exercise is called capacity planning.
You can also use this time to determine the critical path in a project. The critical path is the bare minimum of tasks you need to complete in order to meet the project goal.
In this phase, solidify the tasks each team member is assigned, and communicate with them to make sure they’re informed and have their questions answered.
If you’ve created a RACI chart in the project initiation phase, this’ll be a good time to refer to it.
A project plan often becomes a central document that is referred to often as the project progresses. It might be a good idea to attach or link documents that will be useful to have on hand. If your project plan is in a spreadsheet, you might link to other documents in separate tabs for easy access.
Important documents might include:
Risk management plan
Change management plan
Creating a project plan is one step in ensuring that a project is carried out successfully. There are many other tools and phases you’ll want to have some knowledge of as you pioneer your first project.
If you’re looking for a way to learn project management essentials, consider the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate. The first week is free.
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Project planning is important because it helps teams collaborate efficiently, identify possible issues and risks at the outset of a project, as well as prevent scope creep, which is when teams do more work than is necessary for completing a project. Without a project plan, projects can be delayed and incur extra costs.
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