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How to write a winning project plan

Last updated

16 April 2023

Reviewed by

Jen Lee

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Launching a new project is an exciting activity that can help you reach a variety of business, product development, and personal goals. However, if you jump into a project limited to only goals in mind, your project can quickly go astray, hit delays, or fail to yield the results you hope to achieve. 

Starting a project prematurely without the proper planning and careful consideration for the right business ingredients is a recipe for hardships, unexpected lessons, and potential failure. Poorly planned projects typically take longer than expected, often go over budget, and sometimes don’t reach milestones. 

So, how can you launch an effective project that goes according to plan and meets everyone's expectations? Crafting a well-thought-out project plan is often the first step and can significantly help reach business goals and objectives. 

Our comprehensive guide outlines exactly what a project plan is, what you should include, and an easy step-by-step method teaching you how to create your own plan as part of your recipe for success. 

What is a project plan?

A project plan is also known as a project management document that outlines the goals, objectives, tasks, deliverables, and timelines that teammates need to follow. It's an action plan that describes with clarity the project’s constraints and duties. The plan essentially outlines what you’ll achieve, when you’ll meet goals, and who will perform each task. It also describes an actionable timeline that highlights essential tasks for each milestone.

Assigning tasks to team members will help determine whether the scope is reasonable and whether the timeline outlined is achievable while leaving room for risk and unforeseen delays. A highly effective project plan is a living document that’s updated with task statuses such as in progress, blocked, or completed. You can use the plan to troubleshoot as a team when you need to solve delays, bottlenecks, and problems to maintain the end goal. 

What should you include in a project plan?

Before the team acts on the duties, it's important to remember that a project plan isn’t an instruction sheet that you reference and abandon once everyone begins. It's a living guide part of the process from start to finish that helps teams stay on task and collaborate toward the end goal and deliverable. 

To develop a project plan that will motivate team members, you must clearly outline essential details and considerations. You should include the following detailed elements in any project plan:

  • Goals

  • Timeline

  • Budget

  • Available resources

  • Team members

  • Tasks and deadlines

  • Methodologies 

  • Constraints and risks

  • Communications

  • Tools for each task 

  • Assigned to tasks

  • Task collaborators

  • Team member approving tasks 

What are the four main parts of a project plan?

Each project plan is unique with its goals, resources, scope, and requirements. However, by ensuring your project plan includes these four main components, you can create a timeline that allows you to add all the necessary details to move you to the next step in completing a full picture.

  • Time: Include a detailed analysis of each stage of the project, how these stages will follow a specific timeline, and the days allocated for them to be completed to stay on schedule.

  • Cost: Every plan requires a budget. The project should outline essential costs and any contingency funds to demonstrate how you’ll complete everything within budget.

  • Business: You should clearly outline the business objectives of the plan at the very beginning. This would answer questions like ‘Why are we doing this?’ and ‘How is this goal beneficial along with the expected ROI?’.

  • Technical: The technical aspects of the plan will include the tools required to complete tasks so there’s uniformity and clarity with software and their subscription costs.

What is the best format for a project plan?

An effective plan standardizes how you’ll manage the project and who is overseeing which milestones and prioritizes important goals and their deliverables. 

Since each project is unique, you should customize the format from the template to include the details catered to your team size, budget, complexity, and even industry. Typically, project plans begin with an executive summary outlining the key points. 

You can format the overall document in a few different ways: 

  • Task-focused: A task-focused format outlines the project as a series of broken down goals. You should structure each task to include who will be responsible for the objective and when they need to complete it.

  • Schedule-focused: A schedule-focused structure uses a timeline to develop the plan. Each phase of the project identifies significant milestones and then irons out smaller details associated with the milestone.

  • Project-focused: A project-focused format prioritizes high-level goals to advance completion rapidly. Instead of following a linear structure from beginning to end, the team members may be assigned to complete separate chunked projects without a necessary order to finish the project.

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Why are project plans important?

Accomplishing a project’s main objective isn't easy. Statistics reveal that projects across different industries aren't always successful. In fact, 70% of all projects fail. 

Reasons for these failures range from low stakeholder engagement to going over budget, but the leading reason appears to be a lack of planning. Research shows from unmaterialized plans, 55% of project managers cite exceeding the budget as the reason for project failure and 37% of failures were attributed to a lack of clear goals. Without careful planning, projects can suffer from scope creep from unanticipated tasks and budget exhaustion. 

When written and managed correctly, project plans take the guesswork out of developing a successful project. A well-executed plan clearly defines the goals and resources needed to achieve them. It also outlines who will complete each task and when and may include meetings to review how more complex tasks can be achieved. Good planning, clear goals, and a contingency budget are all indicators of a more informed project plan to help businesses avoid the major pitfalls that lead to unmaterialized plans and goals.

How to write a project plan

Writing a project plan requires careful foresight, critical thinking, and organization. The process demands you include all relevant details and prepare for risk and contingency planning for a successful outcome. The steps below can help you write a comprehensive project plan and reduce unforeseen risks.

Establish project scope and measurements of success

A comprehensive plan begins with a clear understanding of what the project entails. Begin with the project's purpose, parameters, constraints, and goals. Develop a mission statement that defines the project's purpose. List the goals that will achieve this purpose and define how you’ll measure success.

By defining the purpose of the project and exactly what it will take to reach it, you automatically create the budget and timeline scope, which are major constraints. Without clear boundaries and proper time or expectations, you can experience scope creep, which happens when tasks increase and add more time. Scope creep is often responsible for delays and being late, which increases expenses and removes allocated capital for something else in the budget. 

Identify key stakeholders

Stakeholders include decision-makers, authority figures, and team members who all take part in contributing to the project. For example, if a freelancer is contributing to the project, document when and where you’ll need them to perform a specific task. 

It's essential to consider who will be involved in the plan and how they'll be involved. With team members or certain stakeholders, do they need to add input at project junctures? Understanding team members' responsibilities and how they're connected with the project is crucial in understanding who is required and when and what they’ll contribute.

Outline tangible outcomes

Outlining your project's purpose is the first thing you need to establish. Once this happens, then you can define specific deliverables and metrics to detail your project's success. This way, you know from the very beginning what tangible outcomes and deliverables will be produced by your project. Listing the concrete deliverables your team will design, build, produce, or accomplish will help outline the tasks required to achieve your goal.

Develop tasks

Here's where the project plan begins to take shape. Tasks are the specific requirements assigned team members need to complete to bring deliverables to life. Until this point, the plan has outlined expected goals and outcomes. Now, you'll need to break expected outcomes into actionable tasks to be completed by team members and detail when they’re needed. Once actionable tasks are defined, flesh out the details, such as time needed for completion, resources required, and dependencies between tasks.

Assign tasks and deadlines

Now that you have a clear list of tasks, it's time to consider how they'll come together. Assign tasks to team members based on their strengths, skills, and availability. Create a deadline for each task that takes dependencies into consideration. Deadlines should be achievable with room for error while maintaining high communication and urgency to keep team members engaged. 

Share details, gather feedback, and adjust the plan as necessary

When the plan has enough structure for final developments, it's time to garner opinions and advice from key stakeholders. Hold meetings for stakeholders and team members to share the details of the plan. Gather feedback and concerns from stakeholders to make adjustments and improvements as necessary. As you analyze and incorporate the feedback, make the adjustments accordingly and plan for continued flexibility as you carry out the project plan. 

Tips for writing effective project plans

With a step-by-step guide, the path to writing a successful project plan is within your capacity. It's common for project ideas to be vague and unclear until a structured plan is in place. If you're unsure of how you should structure your project, these tips can help. 

Gather inspiration from other project plans

Whether this is your first project or your hundredth, there's no reason to reinvent the wheel. Instead of staring at a blank page or blinking cursor, turn to a successful project for inspiration. Review templates and plans for similar projects to gather ideas and examples. These can act as a guide for structuring your earliest drafts.

Involve your team

You're not likely to be completing your project alone, and you don’t need to. Collaborate with your team and key stakeholders in the early stages of the planning process. Gather input about how to reach projected goals and the resources you'll need for completion and continue to work with them from start to finish.

Don't let perfection get in the way of the good: what makes a good project plan?

Your project plan shouldn't be vague and needs to contain all the necessary details about exactly what you'll accomplish and how you'll achieve it. However, knowing when to add contingencies and room for error is just as important as including the right details. Spending too much time mapping out your plan can delay the actual inception of your project goals. 

Furthermore, the temptation to deliver perfection can get in the way of flexibility and iterations to improve. To write a good project plan, we have included some principles to carry your plan forward:

  • Know your audience. Who do you plan to pitch the project to? What deliverables will be most important to your audience? And what tone is important to them?

  • Be persuasive. Document and highlight the key goals and objectives of your project. Share the ROI, what you can achieve, and the benefits of completing the project.

  • Keep it simple. A plan should act as a guide. Too many details can impede flexibility.

  • Do your research. Make sure to have the right people, skills, and team behind your well-written plan. You’ll require subject matter experts. The right team matched with realistic goals, contingency budgets, and additional timeframe to include room for error will do wonders to make your project plan achievable.

Project plan template

Objective: Summarize the key purpose and objectives of the project in a concise paragraph.

Deliverables: List the expected tangible outcomes of the project and success metrics.

Stakeholders: List all stakeholders and specify their roles in the project.

Scope: List project requirements in order of priority. Develop sections for must-haves and nice-to-haves and set boundaries for activities that fall outside the scope.

Schedule: Develop a timeline that includes individual tasks, milestones, and deadlines.

Additional details: Note potential risks and barriers to achieving success and where the project allows for flexibility and contingency plans. 

This template includes all the necessary features to develop a customizable project plan for your business's next project. However, it’s not tailored to a specific industry or goal. If you're seeking a pre-built planning template with a specific goal or industry in mind, you can partner with a third-party provider for various templates. Asana offers a variety of project planning templates, and Monday.com offers planning templates categorized by industry. 

Dovetail allows you to create reusable project planning templates or even convert an existing project into a template you can use for similar project plans. 

Start your project right with a highly effective project plan

A project plan gives you a comprehensive guide to developing a project with specific goals, constraints, and resources. By adding relevant details to your plan and creating boundaries for your project, you can avoid scope creep, lack of direction, poor budgeting, and other pitfalls that frequently lead to unmaterialized projects. 

With a step-by-step plan in place, you can develop your own project plan from scratch. To kick off the planning, using a customizable template can make the process easier to adapt and follow. No matter your goals, a project plan can help you stay on track throughout the project lifecycle.

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