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How to create simple, powerful project plans

Good project plans are more than a list of what to do when

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What is a project plan? A project plan is the outcome of the project planning process, where a project manager decides, prioritizes, and assigns the tasks and resources necessary to complete a project. Project plans will name the members of a team, what tools and materials are needed, and what steps must be taken to achieve success.

When most people hear “project plan,” they picture some kind of schedule – a laundry list of what to do when. But that’s only a teeny part of it.

A good project manager develops a plan that covers everything from the problem you’re trying to solve to the project scope, deliverables, risks, and dependencies, then maps out a path to complete the project successfully.

Without a project plan, team members don’t have a high-level view of how and when everything will get done. They get lost in the forest of issues and needs and often don’t know where to start. Or worse: they charge ahead with what they imagine to be their contribution, without fully understanding how (or when) their work fits in.

Creating a project plan step-by-step

It seems a bit meta to go through a step-by-step process in order to create a plan, which is itself a step-by-step process. But it’s the key to creating a robust and successful plan.

Before you start drawing up a plan, consider everything you know about your team, your organization, your resources and what you’re trying to do. It's important to build a shared understanding with your team as soon as planning starts.

Step 1: Think of the plan as your project’s map

As you draw the map, it helps to ask yourself:

  • What is the destination? How will you know when the project is over?
  • Who are the people following this map?
  • What milestones will they pass along the way and what’s the approximate distance between them?
  • What obstacles might they encounter? Are there alternate routes available?

Step 2: Get to know your stakeholders

Get a read on the messy facts of organizational politics, difficult personalities, and possible points of debate that may impact the project management process. Larry W. Smith, PMP, Project Manager at the Software Technology Support Center, stresses the importance of performing a stakeholder analysis. According to Smith, everyone involved wants the project to succeed, but forgetting to meet the needs of just one influential stakeholder could ruin things for everyone.

Smith recommends taking time to:

  • Clarify who the project stakeholders are
  • Understand their expectations and level of influence
  • Decide how you’ll incorporate feedback from peers and stakeholders as the project moves along
  • Relate all needs and expectations to risk planning and risk response activities
  • Conscientiously plan all project communication strategies

The communication piece can’t be over-stated. Bernie Ferguson, a project leadership whiz here at Atlassian, starts communicating with stakeholders even in the earliest stages of a project. He says, “We use the Project Poster technique to build a shared understanding amongst team members and stakeholders. What are we doing? What’s the value to customers and to the business? Why do we think this is the right solution? We get feedback on the answers to all these questions before anything hits the team’s roadmap.”

Step 3: Take off your rose-colored glasses and map out a timeline

One of the most common mistakes that project managers make while planning is that they’re overly optimistic. Rather than assuming the best possible situation, take some time to consider problems that might arise and how they could impact your project management timeline. Make sure you perform basic due diligence. Hold a “pre-mortem” workshop, or conduct a series of one-on-one meetings with key players and stakeholders.

You can sketch out a timeline by asking other project managers how long similar projects took to plan. You can meet with teams you know you’ll be working with to understand how long certain tasks will take. If you have a project management tool, check the archives for old project schedules.

Then communicate, communicate, communicate. Let all concerned parties know the details. Because hey: wouldn’t you want to know? Simplified Gantt charts are a common and effective way of visualizing the timeline so it’s easy for everyone to understand.


Step 4: Recruit a few friends

As the project manager, it’s up to you to deliver the project plan (and, ultimately, the project). But this isn’t about you going off into a cubicle and writing the thing. As you develop the project plan, it’s absolutely critical that you keep all of the key stakeholders involved. Stay in near-constant contact. You’ll find they’re excellent resources.

By listening to what your team has to say, and by chewing on ideas together, you can arrive at smart conclusions in a timely manner. That type of collaboration builds a better plan and rallies support for the project overall.

At Atlassian, we use templates to reduce the overhead associated with the planning process and trigger the types of discussions essential to project-planning best practices. Project plan templates are an excellent way to get people to think about aspects of project management that they may not have considered before.

Afterall, it's one thing to have a good elevator pitch for your project, but creating a robust plan is a lot different. Using a template prompts you to think deeply about what you’re going to do and ensures you haven’t forgotten anything. And let’s face it: thinking through dependencies and risks is no fun, so unless there’s some kind of forcing function, it’s all too easy to gloss over those bits in your plan.

Tip: Our project plan template is free and available for anyone to use. We won’t even ask for your email. Grab the PDF here.

Project plan template

Step 5: Think through goals and scope

Create a problem statement that puts down, in concrete terms, exactly what you’re trying to solve. Then develop a hypothesis that states what you think should happen as a result of your project. Next, sketch out an explanation of the background on the project and any data or insights that support it. And determine the metrics you will use to measure success – these will probably inform several areas of your plan.

Ask yourself and your team members what you must have vs. what’s nice to have or simply not needed. By agreeing on the scope of the project at an early stage – including what’s not in scope – you reduce the chance of miscommunication among the stakeholders. You know how much time to ask for from the other people who are helping with the project. And you’ll be able to recognize changes in scope easily.

Scope creep is real. The key is balancing scope, timeline, and resources so none of them get out of control.

Step 6: Anticipate (and prevent) surprises

All project plans include facts on budget, schedule, and scope. But a good plan also answers essential questions about your project, including:

  • Resources: What types of skills does it need and who’s available? What’s your budget?
  • Decisions: Who will contribute recommendations and who will ultimately make the call?
  • Communications: Who’s going to receive messages about the project, when and in what format?
  • Risk: What should team members watch out for and what’s the process for logging and tracking risks?
  • Reviews: How are you going to gather feedback before the project ships?
  • Approvals: Who else needs to sign off on this? Who is the final decision maker?
  • Timing: Does your work schedule fit the project timeline? How did you come to choose your deadline?

Your plan needn’t go into elaborate detail on each of these issues, but it should provide enough information to enable you to implement the project smoothly, without a lot of surprises.

Tip: Use the DACI method for making sound decisions about your project in a timely manner.

Step 7: Choose your favorite project management flavor

As the project manager, you can choose a waterfall or agile approach to project management. An agile approach delivers results fast with small, iterative tasks and a process that continuously evaluates requirements, plans, and results. In this method, time and resources are considered to be fixed. If something needs to give, the project’s scope is reduced to just the must-have pieces – at least for that iteration. Further iterations can be added later to round it out with the nice-to-haves.

A waterfall approach is a more-traditional, sequential (waterfall-like), linear process that moves the project along stage by stage, team by team. Here, scope is considered to be fixed, while timing and resources flex.

Step 8: Write and review your plan

Once you’ve answered all the questions, held all the discussions, and filled up a warehouse of sticky notes, it’s time to write your project plan. Whether it’s in the words you choose or the formatting and design, keep it simple.

Here are some helpful details that should be part of any plan, no matter the format:

  • Project name
  • Delivery date
  • Budget
  • Goals of the plan
  • Highlighted milestones and expected measurable impact
  • Expected starts and completions for each task
  • Callouts highlighting owners of individual tasks
  • Task details and notes, to clarify what should happen
  • Callouts of risk and tasks (or teams) that are dependent on one another to help avoid delays

When your project plan is finished, there’s always a moment of triumph when you dance around your workplace high-fiving everyone in sight. But before you do that, take a moment. Ask someone who hasn’t been involved in the writing to look it over.

Tip: When estimating each task’s size, resist the temptation to go deep into the weeds. Remember these are educated guesses – not blood-oaths.

Step 9: Share your plan… then brace yourself 😉

Your project plan is finished and proofread. Time to get it out there to the people who will be working with you on the project as well as the stakeholders who need to be informed. Then get ready for the real fun, starting with a project kick-off that actually moves things forward. Remember, there will be changes and challenges, you just have to be ready to manage them.

Whatever happens, keep in touch with your plan. By focusing on the intended scope and the agreed-upon steps, you’ll get your project delivered.

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