Poor planning can doom your project before work even begins. Changing expectations, shrinking budgets, and frustrating miscommunications can derail even the simplest project—and make life stressful for everyone involved. 

A thorough project plan can prevent scope creep, overblown budgets, and missed goals. But actually sitting down and planning a project can be an overwhelming task. How do you accurately predict how long tasks will take? How do you translate stakeholder expectations into concrete deliverables? What if something goes wrong?

We’ve collected advice from 5 seasoned project management experts who understand exactly what's needed to create a successful project management plan

Essential Components of a Project Management Plan 

What should be included in your project management plan? For award-winning project management blogger Elizabeth Harrin, a thorough project plan includes these elements:
  • Project Definition Statement: This is the ‘what’ and 'why' of your project: a short statement summarizing the purpose, goals, and final deliverable(s). 
  • Execution Strategy: Explain the 'how' of your project. What methodology will you use? Will delivery happen in a single launch, or released in stages? 
  • Schedule: Depending on how well defined your project is, this can be either a high-level overview of when specific items will be completed, or it can include your detailed Gantt chart complete with milestones and delivery dates. 
  • Organization Chart: An overview of the hierarchy of your project team, roles, and responsibilities. If your project involves multiple teams or departments, this should cover how those teams will work together, who the stakeholders are, and who’s leading each deliverable.  
  • RACI Chart: This chart helps you determine specifically who will do what for your project. It's a matrix of all a project’s activities, paired with all the roles involved, including who's Responsible (assigned to complete the work), Accountable (has yes/no/veto power), Consulted (needs to approve or contribute), and Informed (needs to know about the action or decision). At each intersection of activity and role, a specific person is assigned for each role. Find out everything you need to know about RACI charts here

Image Credit: racichart.org

  • Budget Details: Include projected overtime hours, training courses, consulting fees, equipment and supplies, software purchases, travel expenses, etc. Some of these figures can be tricky to nail down ahead of time but try to be as precise as possible, remind everyone that your budget is an estimate, and know how to calculate earned value to tell if you’re behind schedule or over budget on your project.
  • Communications Plan & Reporting Schedule: Include details on who you’ll be communicating with, what you’ll share, how often, and in what form. 
  • Procurement Plan: If you need to buy something as part of the project (software, materials, etc.) this is where you explain how you’ll research and choose a vendor and manage the contract. It's important to learn and implement good project procurement management strategies for this.
  • Information Management Plan: Detail how you’ll store and share project information, control documentation, and keep your project data safe. 
  • Quality Management Plan: Explain how you’ll manage quality on the project, what your quality standards are, and how you plan to maintain these standards, as well as your proposed schedule for quality audits or checkpoints. 

This can seem like a lot of information to cover, but remember that this is just a project management plan example. A good project plan doesn’t necessarily include everything on this list. 

As Harrin notes, “A longer document does not make you look more clever or organised. It just raises the likelihood that no one will read it except you.” A simple project plan that's easy to follow is best. 

Start with a SOW

According to Brad Egeland, experienced IT project manager, author, and consultant, the foundation of a successful project plan is a Statement of Work. Why? Because it gets everyone on the same page at the start. Later on, when new requirements pop up and scope creep sets in, you can go back to the SOW document to see what exactly the project was supposed to do at its inception. It is also important to be aware of scope creep and gold plating.

Your SOW should include a general statement of purpose/business value, description of project deliverables, definition of milestones, estimation of effort, timeline, and cost, and a high-level description of team roles and responsibilities. 

Set a Timer

Max Wideman, famed project manager and co-author of the original PMBOK, advocates a streamlined method for project planning. His SCOPE-PAK Approach will help you knock out a project plan in 60 minutes or less (Wideman encourages you to actually set a timer). Assemble key stakeholders and team members to determine what you want to accomplish and how you’ll go about it. 
  • Step 1: Stakeholders. Write down who should be contacted for help, information, or approvals, and define the project sponsor. If the list gets long, sort it into major and minor players. 
  • Step 2: Components. This is your WBS. List all significant work items and suggestions (save evaluating them for later— just record them for now). Limit to 30 items, and if your team is starting to sound like they’re searching for items to add, stop this step and move on. 
  • Step 3: Objectives & Outputs. Write down the project’s objective, then define what the output or results should be. Check your work by asking, “If we did all of the work items listed in Step 2, would we accomplish our objectives?"
  • Step 4: Possible Alternatives. What alternatives would also satisfy the project’s objective? Is there a more effective way to accomplish your goals? 
  • Step 5: Economics & Issues. What’s the project’s funding strategy? How is it prioritized among other projects? What resources will you need? What issues will you encounter? 
  • Step 6: Plan of Attack. Look at your list of work items and decide which should be done first. Label that A. Then continue with B, C, D, etc. Then ask what can be done concurrently with A, or B, and so on. This is how you’ll establish the task schedule. 
  • Step 7: Assumptions & Risks. What problems could occur with each task? How can you mitigate risks, or create workarounds? 
  • Step 8: Key Success Indicators. Identify the 3-4 most important stakeholders, and ask, “What is most likely to make them happy?” These are the indicators for project success. Decide how each can be measured when the project is finished. 
You can (and should) do further work to clarify the project work plan, but in just an hour you’ve established a solid plan of attack: identified stakeholders, clarified objectives, and defined outputs.

Don't Overplan

For Ricardo Vargas, an internationally renown project management specialist, a sense of urgency is the most important ingredient of a successful project. Project managers need to be able to respond to customer and stakeholder requests quickly, and that means executing, not sitting around a conference table hashing out timelines and budgets. 

Your project isn't doing anyone any good on paper, so streamline the planning process as much as possible. Only include what's essential in your project plan, and then just get going! 

Vargas uses a consolidated version of the planning guide outlined in the PMBoK, and you can learn more about the specifics of each aspect of his planning process on his blog

Keep It Simple

Project plans can get unwieldy fast, especially once stakeholders and project sponsors start weighing in. To ensure you're not over-complicating things, project management blogger Kiron Bondale suggests starting with the 5 Ws to provide context and perspective for the details of your project plan. 
  • Why: What are the fundamental business benefits of undertaking this project? 
  • What: What is included in the project scope? 
  • Who: What are the critical roles required to deliver the What? 
  • When: When must the What be delivered, in order to achieve the Why? 
  • Where: Where is the best place for the work to be performed? Where will the What be used by customers and end users? 
Only after you’ve stopped to answer these questions should you move on to the "How" of the project. 

Project Management Planning Best Practices

As you can see, even among project management experts there are a few different approaches to creating a project plan. There's no one right way, but one best practice experienced PMs agree on: take the time to define and agree on the main objectives with the project's stakeholders before you start executing. 

Another best practice to follow: hold a project kickoff meeting. Take the opportunity to align your team around project goals, clarify roles and responsibilities, establish standards for success, and choose your project management methodology and tools. Get our tips for hosting the perfect project kickoff that will set the right tone for your team. 

Finally: document as much as possible. Recording your project’s progress will help you analyze your performance and make more informed decisions. 

More Project Planning Resources