How to Make a Project Plan in 4 Steps

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

A project plan contains the schedule, tasks, roles, and other key information of a professional project.

[Featured image] A project manager meets with her teammate in the office to work on a project plan.

What is project planning?

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.

Read more: Project Manager Career Path: From Entry-Level to VP

What is a project plan?

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 include:

Scope and goals

A project plan should make clear what the project is aiming to achieve.

Read more: What Is Scope Creep? Keeping Your Project Focused


The schedule outlines when the project will start and end, how long tasks are expected to take, and when milestones should be reached.

Read more: Schedule Plan: Definition + How to Create One

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.


A project plan generally defines which individual is in charge of what task.


A project plan might include links to other important charts and documents, like RACI charts (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed), a project charter, budget, or risk management plan, so that it’s easy to find key information.

Challenges in project planning

During the project planning phase, challenges may arise that can slow the project down. Knowing these challenges beforehand can help you take action to overcome them. Let's explore some common challenges:

  • Unclear objectives and scope: When the goals or a project keep changing or the scope keeps widening or shifting, project teams will likely find it difficult to outline the project plan.

  • Communication breakdowns and information silos: All team members and stakeholders need a central communication hub to exchange important information in a timely fashion. That way, projects can progress smoothly and on time.

  • Stakeholder management: Sometimes there are communication gaps or conflicting interests among project stakeholders. These issues can hinder project planning. You can mitigate this challenge by managing conflicts and creating win-win solutions for everyone.

  • Resource allocation: When a team faces constraints in allocating resources (labor, equipment, money, time, and space), project planning becomes more difficult, especially if certain tasks depend on the availability of resources. To mitigate this challenge, you can assign priority to particular resources and develop contingency plans in the event that some resources become scarce.

Stand-up meetings (also called Scrum meetings) are short, daily meetings during which project teams discuss the project's progress and blockers. These meetings can be a great way to strengthen team relationships, generate more excitement about a project, streamline communication, align on daily objectives, and address concerns quickly. Incorporate these into the project planning process to make it easier to complete projects on time.


Project plan template

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.

Google Project Plan template

Image from Google Project Management: Professional Certificate.

How to create a project plan

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.

1. Determine a timeline.

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:

2. Build out tasks and milestones.

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 a project's critical path. The critical path is the bare minimum of tasks you need to complete to meet the project goal.

3. Establish roles.

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. Clarify their assigned tasks, project expectations, and performance standards. Clearly articulate project objectives, deadlines, quality standards, and any specific requirements or constraints associated with their tasks. Address any questions or concerns they may have and provide necessary resources or support to help them succeed in their roles.

If you’ve created a RACI chart in the project initiation phase, this will be a good time to refer to it. 

4. Link to important documents.

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:

  • Project charter

  • Project budget

  • Communication plan

  • RACI chart

  • Risk management plan

  • Change management plan

To learn more about the components of a project plan, watch this video from the Google Project Management Professional Certificate.

Getting started in project management

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. 

To learn project management essentials and earn a credential, consider the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate. This program takes about six months to complete and covers project documentation, stakeholder management, Agile and Scrum approaches, and problem solving in real-world scenarios.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

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