How to create simple, powerful project plans

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. My program management colleague Aumarie Benipayo, who has seven years of project management experience under her belt, stresses the importance of building a shared understanding with your team as soon as planning starts.

“There are a lot of conversations that need to happen before you can start putting due dates on tasks,” she says. “Do we know what it is we’re trying to achieve? Do we have the right people? Do we need to resolve any dependencies around it?”

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

As you draw that 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, another project leadership whiz on my team, 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.”

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