How To Design a Project Plan That Works in Four Steps

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Use this project planning guide to help you understand how to plan timelines, tasks, people, and project documentation in a step-by-step process.

[Featured Image]:  Project manager discussing project plan with a team member.

What is project planning?

Project planning is a structured approach to managing a project from its initiation to its completion. A project plan details the scope, budget, schedule, roles and responsibilities, communications, risks, resource allocation, and project documentation for a project. When you break it down, project planning is the process of defining project tasks, who will do them, milestones along the way, and how you will measure progress.

Why and when should project planning happen?

Planning reduces the amount of effort spent on execution and helps increase the overall likelihood of completing a project within a given timeframe and budget.

Project planning is a vital stage in any project management process, which occurs after initiation and before project execution. The most common use of the term "project planning" refers to this specific stage in the lifecycle of a project.

Project plans are very specific to each project, so they are normally created after the initial business case has been fully approved. 

What exactly is a project plan?

The project plan is the document that describes the activities required of the project manager and the project team to complete the project successfully. 

Some of the questions you will be answering in the project plan include:

  • What is the project trying to achieve? 

  • Who are the people involved? 

  • What resources will you use? 

  • How does the project fit into the organisation goals, an overarching programme, or a portfolio of projects?

A four-stage process for project planning

A project plan is essential for any organisation undertaking a large-scale project, serving as the blueprint to ensure all team members are working in-line towards the same goals. The four-stage process to project planning outlined here is very simple. It is broken down into the following steps: 

1) Define project scope and goals

2) Agree on a project schedule, timelines, and milestones

3) Establish roles and teams

4) Plan and establish project documentation

Define project scope and goals

One of the first and most important tasks in planning a project is to identify and define the scope and goals of the project. 

You can’t plan a successful project without first defining the aims and goals of your project. These goals should include everything from measurable objectives to broader aims. What exactly are you trying to achieve?

In project planning, scope refers to the features and functions that a project will deliver. The scope definition is thus a statement that frames the goals of a proposed project. Scope management helps to determine and control what your project will deliver. When you clearly define the scope of the project it helps to reduce the risk of changes altering your schedule or budget and helps the project stay focused on achieving specific goals. 

Agree on a project schedule, tasks, and milestones

In order to create a successful project plan, you need to carefully examine interdependent projects and organisational activities with regard to their delivering criteria as well as the dependencies that link them. You then need to schedule your deliveries so that they’re timed appropriately for the overall plan.

Often schedules are imposed on project managers by hard constraints, such as seasonal launches or compliance dates. Realistic scheduling ensures that related projects don’t hold each other up and that key deadlines are met. 

Scheduling is an analytical and data-driven activity that focuses on tasks and timescales. The first step is to create a list of tasks that make up the project. You can then work backward from the overall project goal to determine the order of the tasks. As a project manager, you must work with your team to identify tasks and estimate time to completion. You can break tasks down into smaller components; estimating the time required for these subtasks is crucial to creating a realistic schedule. As you build the project schedule, you will identify milestones and bottlenecks to their delivery. 

Here is an example project planning template from the Google Project Management Certificate course.

You will want to work out the project critical path, which is the minimum tasks that allow you to meet the project’s goals. You’ll need to plan the work carefully so that you can overcome any barriers in the way of this critical path.

Scheduling your project should involve discussion and negotiation with programme managers, business analysts, project customers, and other stakeholders. You’ll want to frame your position in terms of capacity planning, which is determined by how much work your team can complete and when. If after detailed analysis a timeline for the critical path is not realistic, then it may be necessary to change the scope of the project or re-engineer the project into phases that you can realistically achieve in the given timeframes. Completing milestones and projects on time is largely determined by effective capacity planning.

When scheduling and structuring your project you can use project management tools to help to order the process. Two of the most useful planning documents at this stage are Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and Gantt charts.

Work breakdown structure

Work breakdown structure (WBS) is a deliverables-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work your project team will do. It helps you to create the required deliverables.

Gantt chart

You can use a Gantt chart to show how tasks in your plan will relate to one another and when you have scheduled these tasks for completion. 

Establish roles and teams

With project planning underway, you might find yourself communicating with team members about certain aspects of the project. You’ll list the people involved in each task so you can easily see who’s responsible for what, and which team members need to be kept informed. You’ll detail out the links between tasks, team members, and their assigned tasks. It’s your job to ensure that each function has the competencies and experience required to complete their tasks.

If you’ve worked through the initiation phase, you will probably already have a RACI chart, and you can refer to it as you do the people planning for the project. You’ll need to make sure that you assign access privileges to software applications and share people into any relevant cloud storage and documentation. 

Plan and establish project documentation

You should develop a master project plan document and refer to it throughout the project to track and document work performed. This should contain all of the critical information and materials that you need to manage and execute your project. It’s a good idea to link to all of your baseline documents in this central document, such as:

  • The project charter

  • The project budget

  • Your communication plan

  • Your risk management plan

  • The RACI chart

  • The change management plan.

If you have a complex project, make sure you have a project administration checklist in the plan. This provides descriptions and links for each document so that protocols for planning, tracking, and controlling a project are crystal clear.

Get going in project management

Organisations now have to deliver more than ever through their projects. The need for business agility is driving a trend in project delivery—greater flexibility and innovation. But, with this comes more pressure and a greater need for well-rounded people who can integrate the team but also pick up the pieces should the unexpected occur. Being a good project manager means making smart decisions, avoiding wasted time and effort, and gracefully accepting unexpected changes. 

If you’re interested in starting out in project management but aren’t sure where to begin, the Google Project Management Certificate is a popular first step. This Google certificate can provide you with the information you need to learn the foundations of project management, including concepts like creating a project plan and using different tools for different phases of your project.

As you begin your career in project management you may face skill gaps. But, with a steadfast commitment to learning, you can build your skills, competencies, and experience and become an effective project manager.

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