What Is Project Planning? (And How To Plan a Project)

Updated October 18, 2022

Two colleagues in a large office space look at calculations made on a writing board.

Project planning is one of the most important stages of a project management lifecycle. At this stage, project managers create a document containing all vital project information, including necessary tasks, task owners and a way to implement the project plan. Learning what to include in a project plan and how to strategize for a project can help develop more effective processes and execute projects successfully.

In this article, we define project planning, list what to include in a plan and provide steps for creating one, then offer tips for effective project planning whether you're a new or experienced project manager.

What is project planning?

Project planning is the second of the four stages of a project management life cycle, which are initiation, planning, execution and closure. During this stage, a project manager develops a project plan, which contains information about all aspects of a project, such as resources, financing, risk, quality control and procurement. Creating this detailed document is an important part of project management, as it serves as a map for the project and provides all parties with crucial information regarding factors like milestones, timeframes, resources, deliverables and scope.

Related: What Is Project Management? Everything You Need To Know

What to include in a project plan

A project plan is a comprehensive document that guides a project team during the execution stage of a project. A project manager includes detailed information in this document so that team members understand project requirements and can execute the plan. The project plan includes the following:

  • Scope planning: This is one of the most important steps in project planning as it describes what the team has to deliver to complete the project successfully.

  • Organizational planning: This aspect of the project plan incorporates the work breakdown structure, where a project manager divides the deliverables of a project into detailed activities and tasks. It also involves staff acquisition and assigning resources to project tasks.

  • Developing a schedule: This part of the project plan involves creating a milestone list, sequencing project activities, documenting interactivity dependencies and deciding on timelines.

  • Resource planning: Resource planning includes determining what resources, such as staff, materials and equipment, you may need to complete the project, as well as estimating how much the resources cost.

  • Risk planning: This involves determining possible risks and how to deal with them if they occur. Risks may include material shortages or other potentially negative outcomes.

  • Quality planning: The quality of the work the team delivers must adhere to certain standards. This part of the project plan identifies those standards and states how to ensure quality.

  • Budget planning: It's important to operate within budget when completing a project. During budget planning, a project manager links all project costs to key tasks and deliverables, such as equipment, materials, salaries, travel, accommodation, consultancy fees and consumables.

  • Communication planning: Communication between stakeholders is key to the success of a project. A project manager has to formalize how effective communication should take place, which may include methods, channels and frequency.

Related: Project Plan Template: Definition, Types and Example

How to plan a project

Although different project managers may have different approaches when it comes to planning a project, there are key considerations that all project managers need to consider. These include:

1. Set project goals

When creating a project plan, identify the project sponsors and stakeholders, such as the client and end-users, and then meet with them to establish what their expectations and needs are. After you document and prioritize all relevant parties' needs, determine specific project goals that address these needs and outline the project objectives. These are the project goals and it's important to define these objectives so you can create tasks that ensure the achievement of project goals.

Related: How To Use SMART Goals as a Project Manager (11 Examples)

2. Define the project scope

Defining the scope of the project means precisely outlining the work the team needs to complete in order to meet the project objectives. A project's scope defines the limits and the boundaries of the project and serves to prevent “scope creep,” which refers to tasks or products that fall outside of the agreed-upon scope. Project managers use client requirements and project goals to outline the project scope.

Related: What Is Project Scope Management? (And Why It's Important)

3. Decide on the major deliverables 

Once all parties have agreed upon the project scope, you can define the deliverables of the project. Deliverables are the specific products or services that the project team creates or delivers during the project. These result from the project goals. Clients often choose the deliverables they want.

Related: What Are Project Deliverables? Types and Example

4. Create the scope statement

The scope statement document includes important information like business needs the project addresses, objectives, scope, deliverables, assumptions, exclusions and key milestones. Once you create this document,  present it to the sponsor and all stakeholders, so they can agree with the project details. This helps prevent any chance of miscommunication. As this is basically a contract between the project manager and the sponsor, the latter needs to be cognizant of, and approve any changes that you may request in the latter stages of the project.

Related: How To Create a Project Scope Statement in 7 Steps

5. Create a schedule

Create a schedule to determine how to implement these deliverables. To do this, you can develop a work breakdown structure where you separate big deliverables into smaller, workable tasks. Once you establish all the various activities that your team needs to complete to implement deliverables, order them in a logical sequence. Then, decide how long each task takes to complete, as well as the costs involved in executing them.

It's advisable to first create a milestone list, which are the major phases of the project, and use this as a point of departure when deciding on timeframes for individual tasks. Once you have established all timelines, create a project schedule that clearly indicates when each task begins and ends.

Related: What Are Milestones in Project Management? (With Examples)

6. Assign roles and responsibilities

Assign specific tasks to team members so that everyone understands their responsibilities. You may also need to source external resources and specialists for complex tasks that require expertise or that fall outside of the skill set of your project team. For clarity, develop a staffing plan that clearly outlines the length of time that the project requires each resource.

7. Complete a risk assessment

A risk management plan is a very important aspect of project planning, as it addresses aspects of a project that may negatively influence its successful completion. This process involves identifying possible risks, the probability of these occurring and the impact should they materialize. Once you establish the risks and their gravity, develop a risk response plan, which outlines responses and contingency plans if a risk occurs. Doing so minimizes the impact any major threat may have on a project.

Related: How To Use a Risk Assessment Matrix

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Tips for project planning

Effective project planning requires excellent organizational and communication skills, the ability to consider a wide range of factors at any given time, as well as attention to detail. To assist you in this complex process, here are a few tips:

  • Get approval from shareholders. Once your project plan is complete, ensure that all sponsors and key shareholders approve it. In this way, you eliminate the possibility of misconceptions or miscommunication and ensure that you have their approval and support.

  • Document changes. Even the best project plans inevitably undergo changes. When the plan needs to change, you should employ the formal change control process, which allows you to properly review changes before implementation and also document these changes in the plan.

  • Perform more difficult tasks first. If possible, schedule the riskiest tasks for the beginning stages of a project. In the event of something going wrong, you then have more time, and possibly funds, to rectify the situation.

  • Include team members in planning. Involve team members in the creation of the project plan. Their expertise in various fields and objective inputs helps you to plan more effectively and may also afford them insight into the project.

  • Give yourself extra time. When you create the project schedule, allow for contingency time as some tasks may take longer than planned and may negatively influence project deadlines.

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