The project planning process is essential to laying the groundwork for a successful project.
But planning a project is not linear. The project manager might need to change things on the fly to adjust plans to reality. For example, you could need to adjust the project timeline after planning your resources to avoid burning out your employees. As a result, the project planning processes can quickly become complicated!
In this guide, we’ll share a structured approach to project management planning that will help you plan your future projects better.
What are the stages in project planning?
There are nine essential stages in the project planning process that should be adhered to. Follow these steps to create your project plan:
1. Determine the project goals and objectives
The first step in the project planning phase is to define the goals and objectives of your project.
Project goals and objectives help you decide if the project should be prioritized (or even undertaken). They also assist you in deciding what to deliver to the client and in identifying problems early on, e.g., a short deadline.
Your project goals provide a broad idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and help dictate the direction of your project.
Your project objectives are similar to your goals, but they define the project in more specific terms like cost, time, and quality. Once you have your project objectives, it's easy to determine the deliverables.
To set your project goals and objectives, refer to the information gathered in the project initiation stage. For example, in a project brief, the client states that they need an e-commerce store to handle the volume of orders on their social media pages. Their goal, in that case, is to launch an e-commerce website. Their objectives might be to launch a fast and user-friendly e-commerce website by the end of Q4 at a cost of $20,000.
2. Determine the project scope
Stakeholders often request extra tasks or significant changes in direction (sometimes several of them) during a project that could derail it.
Your project scope protects you from unrealistic expectations, conflicting interests, and unattainable demands as the project progresses.
To determine your scope, look at your project goals and objectives. What do you need to do to achieve them? What isn’t necessary? For example, the scope of a new housing project may be limited to erecting and finishing the building but might not include landscaping or the construction of an outdoor pool. And it certainly does not include switching the design to a skyscraper!
It’s normal to feel uncertain about all the details. Stephen Whitworth, co-founder of incident.io, recommends being flexible in your approach. “You can scope with different levels of detail in your scope. It’s helpful to start vague, get early feedback, and then go precise.”
Using a scope document or a scope statement ensures you can refer back to it if the need arises (this can be achieved in several ways).
3. Build your work breakdown structure (WBS)
At this stage, start determining which tasks, subtasks, and deliverables must be carried out to complete the project. You can do this by referring to your scope and creating a work breakdown structure—a structured decomposition of tasks needed to complete a project.
In his book Project Management for Humans, Brett Harned emphasizes the importance of work breakdown structure: "Creating a work breakdown structure for any plan or set of tasks helps you get granular about the work that needs to be done on any given project."
You can create a written work breakdown structure by:
- Breaking down your project using a Kanban board like Trello
- Mapping out tasks and timelines using Gantt charts in a project management tool like Asana
Start by taking the project itself and breaking it down into large chunks or workstreams. For example, your initial workstreams for an e-commerce website would be setting up the site infrastructure and authentication, creating the cart system, and connecting the payment gateway.
You can go further by breaking your workstreams into smaller deliverables (don’t forget to add managerial tasks at each level!). For the e-commerce website, tasks like buying a domain name, instituting website hosting, and load balancing all fall under setting up the site infrastructure.
If you’re using a project management tool like Asana or Trello to create your WBS, you can integrate with Float to easily allocate tasks based on your team’s skills, availability, and capacity.
4. Set timelines
Now that you have individual tasks created, you can set timelines for each activity.
A view of projects in Float that supports the project planning process
A view of milestones in Float
You can set timelines by comparing the duration of tasks in similar projects or asking your team how long specific tasks take them.
Remember to add a buffer period for unplanned events like switching hosting providers or delays in getting approval from building control inspectors. "If there's a project I can get done in a week, I'll estimate two and half weeks for it. In case of unforeseen circumstances, I'd like to overestimate so I'll have more time," says David Ibia, CEO of BoxMarshall LLC.
Here are some other things to keep in mind when creating timelines:
- Set milestones for project phases: An example of a milestone could be that 2 months from the start date, the engineers will have completed their work on the backend of the e-commerce site.
- Be conscious of time constraints: Your timeline might have to fit the deadline given by clients. In this case, you may need to follow the critical path.
5. Determine and plan resources
For a project to succeed, you need the right people and resources.
The resource planning process in project management involves a lot of project assumptions and estimation. But from the past steps—especially your WBS, scope, and goals—you should have a rough idea of what resources you need.
For example, if you’re building an e-commerce website, you’ll need a developer, a designer, and a copywriter. You’ll also need to purchase hosting and a domain name for the website. If they are a co-located team, you should provide a meeting room for collaboration.
For a new house construction project, you’ll need masons, plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, and materials like sand, rocks, wood, pipes, and wires.
When planning your resources, ensure you:
- Determine the skills/criteria you need
- Confirm future availability of resources
- Identify costs of resources, e.g., hourly rates
- Find out about special requirements, e.g., do you need to find a contractor who is licensed through a guild?
You’ll want to make sure that you have the people with the right skills and capacity to make the project a success. Also, ensure your plan shows clear ownership of tasks. One easy way is to use your WBS to create an organizational structure.
6. Estimate costs
One of the challenges in the project planning process is balancing your budget with your stakeholders' desire to save money.
However, if you underestimate costs, you might find yourself without funds in the middle of the project. To approximate the cost of the project, you can use:
- Ballpark estimation: What do you think the entire project will cost based on project objectives and client expectations? This is not an exact figure. It could cost less or more, so let your clients know. Use this method when you need to give a cost estimate before determining things like your WBS or resources.
- Parametric estimation: Use historical data in your resource management tool and the cost of variables to estimate costs. Turn your WBS into a cost breakdown structure. You can take the prices of a unit of labor, such as a mason working at $23 an hour, and multiply it by the amount of time the project will take.
Make sure to include details about the contact person and processes for releasing the funds. For example, the team lead could approve spending for limited amounts, while larger amounts must be approved by the finance department.
Want to easily set project budgets?
With Float, you can pick hourly or dollar-value budgets that reflect real-time project progress. You can set a task to billable or non-billable hours and keep track of it in your reports.Find out more
7. Determine risks and constraints
No project exists without risks or constraints. The key to avoiding a project failure is identifying the potential pitfalls and creating an action plan to handle them.
One way to properly prepare is to create a risk register—a document that lists all of the potential risks and information about them. Also, include an action plan to counter each project risk in your risk register.
8. Plan out communication
Creating a communication blueprint is essential in developing a project plan. "No matter what role you’re playing on a project, if you’re not making a strong effort to communicate with your team, you will likely fail," says Harned.
Be sure to include details about the following:
- Communication channels: This may be via email for clients, while team members might communicate primarily over Slack.
- Frequency: This may be weekly, on-demand asynchronously, or per milestone.
- Communication type/details: Execs typically need fewer details and more high-level information, while team members are actively working on the project need more granular information.
- Contact persons: Define who you go to and with what type of information to avoid delays.
All of our rules and best practices for communication are contained on a Notion page to help keep interactions between team members accessible and efficient.
Float centralizes your people and projects, so everyone can always see who’s working on what and when. Automate notifications via Slack, email, and mobile to let the team know when plans change.
9. Make plans for quality control and assurance
Planning for project quality control involves providing guidelines for managing, assuring, and maintaining standards within the project.
Without a plan, it will be very tough to achieve your desired results. You might end up with a slow e-commerce website or a leaky plumbing system!
To set quality control metrics, you should:
- Leverage in-house experts' knowledge of best practices
- Reference industry standards—for example, e-commerce sites need to have a secure and fast payment system
- Work with key stakeholders to determine expectations of quality
Your plan should also include acceptance criteria, define the people in charge of verifying work, and set any corrective actions.
What are the components of a project plan?
The elements will vary from project to project, but here are some essential components every successful project plan should have:
- Scope: Define the boundaries of your project. What will be included and excluded in the entire project?
- Deliverables: Define what products/deliverables need to be submitted at the end of the project.
- Budget: Define how much the project will cost. One easy way is to use your WBS to create a cost breakdown structure by assigning costs to each task.
- Quality: Define how quality will be assured and controlled on the project.
- Schedule: Assign time to each project activity and people to tasks.
- Resourcing: Define what human and material resources will be needed to complete the project.
- Stakeholder management/communication: How will you communicate with your stakeholders and keep them in the loop? Define which stakeholder will be given what information at what times.
- Governance: To keep your project transparent and compliant, define which team members are responsible for project monitoring and decision-making.
- Risk: Enter all risks in a risk register. Also, include details about each risk and plans to combat them.
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Why is project planning software important?
Planning a project involves a lot of guesswork. The truth is, as accurate as you try to be, your estimates may still end up a bit off track.
Project planning software makes this work easier by providing a central place to document and share plans with stakeholders. It allows you to automate timeline planning and milestone setting. It also provides reliable historical data to inform decisions for future projects.
With project planning software, you can forecast potential risks and resource shortages before they happen. You can track the availability and capacity of resources and find the right skills in your resource pool, effectively planning your project from start to finish.
Project plans are not set in stone
The planning phase is iterative. More often than not, you will need to change your project management plan to match reality.
Don't hesitate to find a way to redistribute resources or cut costs if you are falling behind schedule. If your communication plan isn't working, reassess and try new ways to keep your stakeholders informed.
A successful project requires contributions from everyone involved, and that’s only possible with a solid project plan.