What is a project plan and how to create one in 5 steps?

project management
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When you decide to undertake a particular project, it can initially be quite daunting. Where should you begin? Business software, from project management software to the best CRM solutions,  can help, of course, but what organizations really need is a plan. But coming up with a project plan isn’t necessarily straightforward either.

A project plan is essentially a clear description of what your project is, what you want to achieve, and how you aim to go about it. Project planning will usually outline certain timeframes, as well as define the resources that you will use. 

Project planning can take a variety of forms and is likely to differ depending on a project’s aims, a company’s industry, stakeholders, and many other factors. However, we’ve included five summon steps that will help you get your project plan off to the right start.

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What is a project plan and how to create one in 5 steps?

Step 1: Define your stakeholders

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Even if your project is a solo affair, it’s likely that other individuals will be involved, whether that’s customers or commercial rivals. Most projects are about people at the end of the day, which is why the first step when crafting your project plan should be to define your stakeholders. 

Businesses should include anyone with an interest in the project when outlining stakeholders - from both inside and outside the organization. Meet with these stakeholders where possible and get them to discuss their needs and expectations from the project. Define their roles, keeping in mind that some stakeholders might have multiple within a single project.

The best CRM software can help businesses improve communication, which will improve stakeholder engagement within the company. At the same time, marketing departments probably have their own solutions for crafting buyer personas to help form 360-degree outlines of consumer stakeholders. 

Step 2: Set your goals

An illustration of a laptop displaying a gantt chart

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The next step when crafting your project plan is to outline your goals. Without a clear objective, your project will flounder without an objective and no way of measuring success. Defining your project objectives will also inform the final shape that your project takes. Your goals will also help determine where resources are allocated and what tools you’ll use. For instance, if one of your project’s main aims is to derive clearer customer insights, then a business intelligence platform is likely to be essential. 

As well as listing your goals when creating a project plan, remember that not all goals are of equal importance. Prioritization is an important part of goal creation, so you can focus resources in the right areas. Outline the tasks needed to meet your most important goals (task management may help here) and see if some project visualization tools can provide added clarity. A Gantt chart, for instance, can help with task prioritization and mapping project dependencies.

Step 3: Create a schedule

A project plan doesn’t just tell you what to do and what order to do it in; it also helps create a timeframe for your project. When creating a project plan, businesses should establish a schedule as early as possible. It’s important to be realistic here and account for the fact that most projects will hit a snag at some point. Flexibility will be important if timelines have to be shifted in light of new developments.

In fact, any timeline that forms part of your project plan should look to outline risks and take these into account. Identify risks to not only hopefully form mitigating strategies but also to evaluate what sort of impact they might have on the project. Could they delay the project’s completion? Could they damage your results? 

A simple matrix, the kind often included in many small business CRMs, can help you to better understand a likely time frame for your project. Think carefully about who will be responsible for each task and consider the person’s bandwidth before you set a deadline for completion. List each stakeholder should be accountable to - probably a team leader or manager - and keep on top of things. Don’t wait until the deadline has passed before you check in on individual employees. Use metrics to understand how things are progressing, if additional support is needed, and whether the initial timeline you came up with is still feasible.

Step 4: Communicate

A man leading a business meeting

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When you’ve formulated an initial project plan, there are a couple of steps before the planning stage is formally complete. Make sure your plan is shared with all the relevant stakeholders as part of an open discussion. If there are any concerns, allow these same stakeholders to share them freely. Project planning should be an ongoing process with feedback always welcomed. 

If a stakeholder has some important input, you may want to reassess your plan and communicate any changes you’ve made. Ask stakeholders if they fully understand the plan you’ve come up with. If there are any reservations, it’s highly unlikely that your plan will deliver the results you’re looking for. And remember your project doesn’t exist in isolation. Any feedback - from the initial plan or following a project’s conclusion - can help inform the next plan so things go even better.

Step 5: Final evaluation

When you’ve implemented your plan, it’s time to assess how things went. Did your plan lead to the desired outcome? What could be communicated better? What would you change for the next project? Conduct a thorough final evaluation covering the planning stage, implementation, and results. 

Canvass opinions from multiple stakeholders when you're carrying out your final evaluation too. You may have thought that the project was an unqualified success, for example, but your employees may have been exhausted due to what they saw as unrealistic expectations. Talking to different stakeholders is the only way of getting a well-rounded picture of a project’s success. A formal revenue can help to elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of any project so you can derive the necessary learnings from it.

Do you really need a project plan?

Of course, you could forgo the planning stage and launch headfirst into your next project - but it’s probably not a great idea. A project plan provides structure around what you want to achieve, when, with whom, and how. It’s an important step - and while it won’t guarantee project success, it will provide clarity on what went well and what didn’t.

Barclay Ballard

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with ITProPortal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.