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Project Planning a Step by Step Guide

~ By Duncan Haughey

Businessman finding the solution to a maze

The key to a successful project is in the planning. Creating a project plan is the first thing you should do when undertaking any project.

Often project planning is ignored in favour of getting on with the work. However, many people fail to realise the value of a project plan for saving time, money and many problems.

This article looks at a simple, practical approach to project planning. On completion of this guide, you should have a sound project planning approach that you can use for future projects.

Step 1: Project Goals

A project is successful when it has met the needs of the stakeholders. A stakeholder is anybody directly, or indirectly impacted by the project.

As a first step, it is important to identify the stakeholders in your project. It is not always easy to determine the stakeholders of a project, particularly those impacted indirectly. Examples of stakeholders are:

  • The project sponsor
  • The customer who receives the deliverables
  • The users of the project output
  • The project manager and project team

Once you understand who the stakeholders are, the next step is to find out their needs. The best way to do this is by conducting stakeholder interviews. Take time during the interviews to draw out the requirements that create real benefits. Sometimes stakeholders will talk about needs that aren't relevant and don't deliver benefits. These can be recorded and set as a low priority.

The next step, once you have conducted all the interviews and have a comprehensive list of needs is to prioritise them. From the prioritised list, create a set of easily measurable goals. A good technique for doing this is to review them against the SMART principle. This way, the achievement of the goal will be easy to identify.

Once you have established a clear set of goals, they should be recorded in the project plan. It can be useful also to include the needs and expectations of your stakeholders.

Now you have completed the most difficult part of the planning process; it's time to move on and look at the project deliverables.

Step 2: Project Deliverables

Using the goals you have defined in step 1, create a list of things the project needs to deliver to meet those goals. Specify when and how to deliver each item.

Add the deliverables to the project plan with an estimated delivery date. You will establish more accurate delivery dates during the scheduling phase, which is next.

Step 3: Project Schedule

Create a list of tasks that need to be carried out for each deliverable identified in step 2. For each task determine the following:

  • The amount of effort (hours or days) required for completing the task
  • The resource who will carry out the task

Once you have established the amount of effort for each task, you can work out the effort required for each deliverable, and an accurate delivery date. Update your deliverables section with the more precise delivery dates.

At this point in the planning, you could choose to use a software package such as Microsoft Project to create your project schedule. Alternatively, use one of the many free templates available. Input all of the deliverables, tasks, durations and the resources who will complete each task.

A common problem discovered at this point is when you have an imposed delivery deadline from the sponsor that is not realistic based on your estimates. If you discover this is the case, you must contact the sponsor immediately. The options you have in this situation are:

  • Renegotiate the deadline (project delay)
  • Employ additional resources (increased cost)
  • Reduce the scope of the project (less delivered)

Use the project schedule to justify pursuing one of these options.

Step 4: Supporting Plans

This section deals with the plans you should create as part of the planning process. These can be included directly in the plan.

Human Resource Plan

Identify, by name, the individuals and organisations with a leading role in the project. For each, describe their roles and responsibilities on the project.

Next, specify the number and type of people needed to carry out the project. For each resource detail start dates, the estimated duration and the method you will use for obtaining them.

Create a single sheet containing this information.

Communications Plan

Create a document showing who is to be kept informed about the project and how they will receive the information. The most common mechanism is a weekly or monthly status report, describing how the project is performing, milestones achieved and the work you've planned for the next period.

Risk Management Plan

Risk management is an important part of project management. Although often overlooked, it is important to identify as many risks to your project as possible and be prepared if something bad happens.

Here are some examples of common project risks:

  • Time and cost estimate too optimistic
  • Customer review and feedback cycle too slow
  • Unexpected budget cuts
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • No stakeholder input obtained
  • Not clearly understanding stakeholder needs
  • Stakeholders changing requirements after the project has started
  • Stakeholders adding new requirements after the project has started
  • Poor communication resulting in misunderstandings, quality problems and rework
  • Lack of resource commitment

Risks can be tracked using a simple risk log. Add each risk you have identified to your risk log; write down what you will do in the event it occurs, and what you will do to prevent it from happening. Review your risk log on a regular basis, adding new risks as they occur during the life of the project. Remember, if you ignore risks, they don't go away.

Congratulations. Having followed all the steps above, you should have a good project plan. Don't forget to update your plan as the project makes progress, and continually measure progress against the plan.

Enjoyed this article? Now read 21 Ways to Excel at Project Management

Comments (19)

Topic: Project Planning a Step by Step Guide
4/5 (23)
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12th August 2019 2:07am
Stanford Komba (Port Morsby) says...
I was told to do a project plan as my major project for one of my courses and I have used this plan. It hasn't been marked yet, but I'm pretty sure that I will score better marks. Thanks very much.
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21st December 2018 10:43am
Sunitha (Bangalore) says...
I am making a career come back after a break and reading this made me literally go back to the project days. Thanks a tonne!
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29th November 2018 9:47am
Aahana Laghari (Ahmedabad) says...
Great, project planning plays a crucial role for managing projects. It helps in minimizing the non-added value time and making the project run smoothly. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. The project plan shows you a path to success in your project.
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15th September 2018 2:11pm
Muuzgbabo (Mekelle) says...
The statement is very good, but some professionals wrote and defined six steps of project planning:

  1. Identify and meet stakeholders
  2. Set and prioritize goals
  3. Define deliverables
  4. Create project schedule
  5. Identify issues and complete risk assessment
  6. Present the project plan to stakeholders
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29th October 2017 1:55am
This is indeed a God send...THANK YOU! We are on the verge of establishing an NGO (which is indeed a big project) and I am wondering how to write the roadmap and the first project proposal. This "PROJECT PLANNING A STEP BY STEP GUIDE" By Duncan Haughey is so plainly written that I sincerely said a thank you prayer to God for leading me to this site and to this article. THANK YOU, Mr. Haughey. I did enjoy this article and will read the suggested "21 Ways to Excel at Project Management".
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15th May 2017 4:17pm
Dermot (Menlo Park CA) says...
I really like the KISS principle applied here and the soundness of the step by step approach.
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17th January 2017 11:50am
Jeda (Lagos) says...
I am an entrepreneur that's in the initial stages of starting a business. A friend recommended that I write a project plan for my business as a business is only as good as its project plan. I decided to Google and I found this article. Very clear and simple. Its been quite helpful. Thanks.
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11th November 2016 10:58pm
T Hawk (UK) says...
Simplistic view of project management. The key things to remember are the plan consists of all the 'agreed' step by step activities for each deliverable part of the project, not necessarily all linear. The schedule is who does what when and could be impacted by their own dependencies and capacity. Having the ability to secure or lockdown resource is probably the most difficult part to any project. Always drive out the risks and issues and push people to stick to the plan.
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20th October 2016 12:48pm
Karim (Toronto) says...
The title of the article indicates project planning. One would think this has to do with a project 'plan'. What the article talks about here is how to approach a project at a very high level. You start off from the definition/initiation phase. There is nothing on project planning here, other than at a 100,000 ft. level. This would only help those who know nothing about project management and want a high-level understanding of how to define/approach a project.
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20th October 2016 5:04pm
Duncan (London) says...
What is your definition of a project plan?
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13th October 2016 2:35am
Robert (Woodbridge) says...
I'm somewhat new to Project Management and it seems that some definitions seem to overlap and I find it a little confusing. For instance you say that planning is not scheduling yet "Project Schedule" is the third step on the list. Please help me better understand this concept.
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13th October 2016 6:01pm
Duncan (London) says...
What Chris is saying is that a Schedule on its own is not a project plan. The schedule is part of the plan. The plan should also contain the other items listed in this article and address the following:

  • Why you are doing the project. (The business case for the project).
  • The work being performed to produce the products/deliverables.
  • People who will work on the project; their roles and responsibilities and how you will organise them into a team.
  • Date the project will deliver the products/deliverables agreed with the customer. (List significant milestones along the way).

Think of it as a guide to managing the project.
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23rd October 2018 12:05pm
Rose Mitchell (London) says...
It all makes sense and is a good high level summary, but I think for a lot of people who are more familiar with project management and PM frameworks, the project plan you refer to, would be in a couple of documents. The Project Charter and the Project Initiation Document. These are often combined. As you have said, the schedule is only one part of the overall PID or initiation phase. In most cases, when you start the PID, you would only have some initial or high level milestones and would only start your detailed planning for the later phases once the initiation phase had been completed and you have received the approval for the project and requested budget/resources. I know that in some cases, you need to do the detailed planning to have the information to understand what is required from a resource and budget perspective, but in my experience, it never works like that.
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12th April 2016 6:50am
Chris O'Halloran (Brisbane) says...
It's also worth noting that a project plan is not a schedule, I often hear people refer to their Gantt chart as a project plan, which is not correct. Considering that a project will only ever be as good as its preceding project plan, it's important to do these well.
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7th January 2016 11:46am
Bernard Bobore (Papua New Guinea) says...
I was chosen to be a project manager for a small project, which was about to operate in my small town and I didn't  know what to do. After going through the Internet I came to your site, I was very impressed when following your simple guide. Now I have some ideas on what to do.
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6th October 2015 2:35am
U (London) says...
Thanks a lot for this article - also referred to it in preparing for a job interview. Got the job offer about an hour later!
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12th September 2015 7:01am
Pakamile Mzukwa (Cape Town) says...
I study disaster management and I have just been asked to create a project plan for my assignment and I have used this plan. It hasn't been marked as yet, but I feel so good about my assignment. I will deffinately nail it. Thank you.
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29th September 2015 5:01pm
Kinga (Wrexham) says...
Hi Pakamile Mzukwa, Did you get your marks yet? I have just been asked to do a project management plan based on a case study provided, but I am not sure where to start...
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8th April 2015 12:02am
Melani Lewes (Birmingham) says...
I was required to do a project plan presentation for a job interview. I have never done a project plan before in my life. After Googling, finding your site and following your simple, easy to understand, step by step guide I did the presentation and got my dream job! Thank you.

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