Here’s the thing about project plans—they won’t necessarily stop things from going awry.
Even the most well-documented project plan can fall flat. All it takes is a bad stroke of luck or an unforeseen crisis and you’re blown off course.
So why write project plans at all?
It’s simple: the real value of a project plan lies in the ability to spot deviations as they occur.
By having a project plan in place, you’ll be able to recognize and respond to unplanned changes before they get out of hand.
Not only that, but a well-written project plan sets project expectations. That way you, your customers, your team, and any other key stakeholders are on the same page—literally.
Need help getting started? Follow this step-by-step guide on how to write a project plan and the best tools to use to make each stage of the process simpler.
What exactly is a project plan?
First off, don’t confuse your project plan with your project schedule. Your schedule is only one aspect of your plan.Your project plan is a formal document that outlines the whole project. It’s like the sherpa leading your project up a mountain—it shows where you go and who’s in control.
A project plan will set out the purpose of your project along with the milestones to reach that project objective. It should cover the resources you’ll use, the timescales you plan to stick to, and the deliverables at each stage.
In short, your project plan defines, organizes, prioritizes, and assigns activities and resources throughout your project lifetime.
For those looking to implement more agile project management frameworks, a project plan might seem a little rigid at first.
It’s not. It’s just there to work as a guide to keep you on track.
Basically, by outlining your expectations and intentions for project goals, timescales, and budgets, you can pinpoint the moments when these things start to go awry.
A project plan can help to curtail wily overspending and late turnaround by identifying these issues early.
How to write a project plan easily
There are no hard-and-fast rules for a project plan. It can be as simple or as complex as suits you.
Some organizations just create a simple project plan on a whiteboard or briefly cover what’s what on 1–2 pages. Others go into every detail about how the project will be executed.
If you’re looking to create a comprehensive project plan that covers all angles, answer these 6 questions:
1. Should you start with an executive summary?
The executive summary goes at the beginning of your project plan to summarize everything in the document.
While it goes first, it’s a wise idea to write it last as you’ll be pulling out the main points from the rest of your plan.
It should be no longer than a page, offering a brief overview of:
- The project goal
- Your chosen project methodology/framework
- The final deliverables and acceptance criteria
- Key scope risks and countermeasures
- Summary of milestones
- An overview of the project timeline and schedule-based risks
- Resource and spending estimates
The summary serves as a snapshot of your project.
For stakeholders who aren’t actively involved in the mechanics of the project, they can get an understanding of how it will run easily.
For project managers, the executive summary serves as a quick reminder of the key project goal, scope, expectations, and limitations.
Since a third of projects don’t meet their original goals, it’s important that project managers review the project plan regularly to stay on track or monitor changes. The executive summary helps them do this quickly without having to read everything all over again.
As Ben Snyder, CEO of project management training firm Systemation puts it, you need to “look over the project plan each week and identify the gaps in your project. Pay attention to scope, time, cost, and where you should be via your deadlines and project objectives.”
Your executive summary makes it quicker to perform this review.
2. What’s the scope of the project?
There are few things worse than starting on a project only for it to balloon.
The project scope sets boundaries. It defines when the project starts and finishes, along with the expectations for deliverables.
You want to make sure everyone involved is on the same page about what’s included within the project’s remit and what isn’t.
It’s also smart to note which processes your project will affect and how, where high-level projects might overlap, and which processes may have an effect on your project.
You’ll also need to dive into the acceptance criteria for deliverables. This means specifying who approves deliverables and what the process is for these approvals.
Always remember to cover your back.
Outline the potential risks associated with meeting these expectations and give countermeasures to mitigate these risks. Define exactly who’s accountable for tracking these risks.
Learn from these failures—create a comprehensive project scope for every project.
3. How will you structure your project?
The way you structure your project will depend on the framework you’re using to guide your project.
For example, if you’re using the waterfall framework, you’ll be planning everything in advance.
You’ll move through all the stages of development sequentially — initiation, requirement gathering and analysis, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance.
Roles are clearly defined, with each team member stepping in to complete their specialist task at the right phase.
Each phase has a clear start and end date and all the tasks for that phase are completed in one go.
Or you may choose to go with a type of agile framework, such as the scrum framework.
But you won’t plan in detail what’ll be covered in each sprint until you get to it. In the beginning, the only lower-level detail in your project plan will be for the very first sprint.
Another option is the Kanban framework.
This is a very fluid way of working where tasks are pinned to a board and assigned to project team members who move it through the predefined columns (assign, to-do, review, done) of the project’s funnel.
In this structural section, you’ll want to outline the columns you’ll have on your Kanban board.
Task delivery is constantly reprioritized with each piece of new information, so you won’t need definite deadlines for each phase. Rather, you may just plan how to monitor and control the volume of work-in-progress.
Whichever framework you choose, this section of your project plan should show how you plan to organize and assign deliverables and accountability.
Remember that the centralization of project structures can negatively impact success, so try to work out ways that teams can work autonomously.
It’s not good to have one approver who’s accountable for everything — it will bottleneck your processes.
4. What resources do you have available?
Define the resources you have available for this project:
- Physical resources
You need to be precise when you’re assessing what you’ll need, otherwise you’re baking a cake with all the wrong ingredients.
Take your team, for example.
When teams have the right highly-skilled people, projects are 30% more likely to succeed. Yet, a third of people don’t believe their teams have all the right skills for the project—a recipe for failure.
It’s no good saying you can make do with 2 software developers, only to realize you’ll miss every deadline because they’re overloaded. If you want to effectively allocate your resources to meet expectations, you’ll need to be realistic about resource limitations.
This may, for example, mean adjusting timescales if you’re short on staff or increasing your budget if you need more specialist equipment.
5. What does your timeline look like?
Organizations that implement time frames into project plans are 52% more likely to succeed. Despite this, 80% of projects don’t always set baseline schedules. That’s probably why 43% of organizations say they rarely or never complete successful projects on time.
In this sense, it’s wise to add a project schedule section to your project plan. This part of your plan should set expectations on when you’ll deliver and how you’ll stick to your project timeline.
Your project schedule will look a little different depending on which framework you choose.
The tasks that you have a ‘Work in Progress’ (WIP) will depend on your team’s capacity. In this section, you should set your maximum number of WIPs you can have in each column at each time.
For example, say it’s a blog-writing project. You might have 10 writers but only 2 editors. You’ll need to limit how many blogs get passed through to editors so they don’t get overwhelmed.
Whichever framework you’re working with, you’ll want to add a schedule risk management section. Explain the risks that might delay deliverables or create bottlenecks. Make sure you outline contingency plans to mitigate these risks.
6. How will you manage changes?
With a robust project plan in place, what could possibly go wrong?
Ever heard of a ‘black swan event’? It’s an unexpected event with a huge (usually negative) impact. While hindsight is 20:20, you can’t always see every obstacle or diversion ahead of time.
That’s why organizations put change control in their top 3 project challenges. If you don’t solidify a change management plan, your team will be clueless on what to do when unplanned change hits.
A dynamic change management plan will outline the steps to follow and the person to turn to when unforeseen changes occur.
That way, your project is far more nimble—it’s able to bend without breaking.
5 project planning templates to help you write a flawless project plan
It’s not easy to write a project plan straight off the bat—you’re going to need to plan your plan.
These tools by monday.com are a lifesaver when it comes to visualizing each section. Try these 5 project plan templates to make your project planning process a little more straightforward.
1. Structure your project
Looking for a general project plan template? This Project Overview Dashboard is particularly helpful if you’re using the Waterfall framework.
Using this highly visual template by monday.com, you can structure your subprojects by set time periods and allocate accountable personnel to each phase.
Prioritize each project and add a timeline to show when deliverables are expected.
2. Plan out your resources
Resource management is a breeze with this easy-to-use template from monday.com.
Use this dashboard to organize all your project resources—from your technological tools to your specialist staff members.
You can allocate resources to individuals and tack on timescales so your staff knows what resources they’re responsible for in which phase.
Attach a location so that teams know where to hand over resources as they transition from one phase to the next.
During project execution, you’ll be able to track project resources so nothing goes AWOL.
3. Calculate your project budget
It’s far easier to plan a budget when you can see all your costs in one place.
That’s why this Project Cost Management Template from monday.com is so incredibly handy…
Add each subproject and plan out projected costs, allocating totals to each department. You can use the document to estimate the budget you’ll need and to record your approved project budget.
4. Sketch out your project schedule
Plan out your schedules with this Project Timeline Template.
While this dashboard isn’t really suitable if you’re working with the Kanban framework, it’s ideal for those operating under Waterfall or Scrum frameworks.
For Waterfall projects, add in your milestones, attach a timeline, and allocate a set number of work days to complete the tasks for each milestone.
Tag in the team leader for each phase so project managers know which milestones they’re responsible for.
During project execution, teams can use the status bar to track progress. They can also add updates to each milestone by clicking on each item, which encourages inter-team collaboration.
For Scrum projects, you can organize the dashboard by Sprints, adding in the specific tasks as they’re decided.
5. Work out potential project risks
Visualize all your project scope and schedule risks in this Program Risk Register Template.
There’s nothing better than a vivid color-coding system to highlight which items are a serious risky business. Use color-coded status bars to illustrate risk status, risk probability, and risk impact for your project scope and schedule.
You can even categorize risks, add a risk owner, and suggest mitigation strategies. That way other project team members know what to do if these risks start to blossom into real glitches.
Got a better idea of how to structure your project plan? It’s time to start fleshing out this skeleton structure with the details of your own projects.
Remember, it’s far easier to write the executive summary at the end, once you know the points you need to summarize. Don’t try to write it first — you’ll only find yourself stuck on the first page of your project plan.
Equally, don’t struggle planning your project plan. Use monday.com’s pre-built planning templates to help you breakdown each section of the plan as you go.