Cheat Sheet: Creating a Project Plan

Project Management is the discipline of planning, organising, and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of a specified project goal. In all honesty, Project Management often can sound a lot more complicated than it actually is. We are here to share a few of our lighter-touch tips to help you get started planning a project.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” – Antione de Saint-Exupery

Planning is an everyday activity. We all do it. The process is natural and thus for the most part goes unnoticed. We buy food in advance of cooking, having to remember which ingredients we need while running round the supermarket, checking use-by dates to see if we’ll be able to stock up ahead without food spoiling, assessing weights and portion sizes, and trying to find the best prices for similar products.

You don’t have to make a project plan complicated, simply think of it as an extension of the type of planning you normally do, written down clearly so that everyone shares your knowledge and any associated tasks, and can work to the schedule you set out for completion. It needs to be a map, one that is clear enough for anyone to follow and reach the end destination.

We’re going to start by offering some of our top project planning tips before we launch into a more in-depth look at what to include in a simple project plan.

1)      Have a clear goal from the beginning.

There is no beating around the bush here, you absolutely must have a clearly defined goal that you are working toward at the beginning of your project planning journey. You need to know what you want to achieve, when you want to achieve it, and what resources you will have access to, in order to do so.

2)      Involve the right people.

Projects generally require a Project Sponsor and a Project Manager. The Sponsor is responsible for the project, they need to check that it is achieving value for money and will achieve the aims it was created to. The Manager runs the project on a day-to-day basis. This doesn’t mean that they undertake every action, often a large part of their role is to delegate and supervise, but it does mean that one person will have an in-depth understanding of every aspect of the project.

For example, the Project Manager will know when one missed deadline might impact upon another and can plan and re-arrange the project to ensure that the end result will still be achieved on time. The Project Sponsor needs to challenge and hold the Project Manager to account and ask the detail how the project will still be achieved if a deadline has been exceeded.

It is very important that you agree how much responsibility and authority rests with the Project Sponsor and Project Manager – everyone needs to be clear what decisions they can make in order to push the project forward.

Drafting a Project Plan in isolation can be extremely difficult as you may not know exactly what each action will involve and how long it will take. You might miss a key action or task that will impact on timescales when drafting, with the knock-on effect of involving a lot of re-working the plan to amend it after. Speak to colleagues at an early stage, involve them in the process and save yourself future headaches, whilst also guaranteeing that they are on-board with your goals and willing to deliver on their actions.

3)      Manage expectations.

From the outset, you need to be realistic about what is possible. Can you deliver by the date specified? Is it technically possible with the resources you have been allocated? When you begin to plan your project you need to have an initial idea about the costings, timescales, and resources involved in achieving it. It is usually best to allow some wriggle room too, as overspending is an issue that escalates rapidly if you’re running late and have to pay additional fees to ship goods faster, or buy in additional hours to cover last minute work.

4)      Use tools and technology appropriately.

Technology can make the management task a lot easier by automating certain processes, but don’t ever allow yourself to become a slave to the machine. Project Management software can be costly, especially when staff require additional training to come to grips with it. The choice to buy-in technology is yours, but ask yourself whether the scale of the project justifies spending the time and money on it when you could create a simpler in-house solution.

In terms of communications and documentation, our usual advice applies here – keep it simple! If you can meet face-to-face to discuss an issue this is often the best way to achieve consensus, but it can be time consuming. Think about simplifying any documents to ensure that they can be swiftly read and understood. For example, if you are presenting various options for a new IT product, try to set out the pros and cons as a table, allowing a side-by-side comparison of costs, benefits, features, training requirements, and so on. Providing a short and easily digestible document can save everyone time as it allows you to drill down into what is important as you set out the options clearly for others and if you provide this before a short face-to-face meeting everyone is armed with the information they need to discuss the merits of each option quickly and reach a consensus.

Creating a Project Plan

The first thing we’d recommend you do when planning your project is to come up with a clearly defined goal that everyone can understand and buy into. Once you know what you need to achieve you can start to brainstorm the various activities you’ll need to break the project down into in order to achieve it.

For example, you felt absolutely inspired after watching a documentary about the Himalayas and decided that you must go within the next year and trek the Annapurna Circuit. It is something you’ve always wanted to do and you don’t want to put it off any longer. So where do you start?

Try brainstorming the main actions you think you’ll need to take to achieve your goal. This can be as simple as the spider diagram below which covers our first thoughts about actions (and possible issues) for our example.

Project Plan Example

Once you know exactly what you want your project to achieve, and have an idea of the main actions necessary to reach that end point, you then need to start to work backwards. With the end date in mind, you then start to work out when each action needs to be taken so that you meet that date, some actions rely upon others and so need to be placed in order, others can be taken at any point. To continue with our example, actions you’d want to take to get to trek the Annapurna Circuit include:

  • Research trek providers for price, quality, availability
  • Book trek
  • Book flights (allow one day before trek starts and two days after)
  • Book additional transport (to and from airport)
  • Book airport parking
  • Book time off work
  • Pay off balance of flights and trek
  • Book kennel for the dog
  • Buy equipment
  • Increase fitness levels
  • See doctor for any travel medication/advice
  • Pack

These obviously aren’t listed in the correct order, unless you have a really flexible and easy going boss, you’d probably need to book time off work before you went ahead and booked your holiday. One of the easiest ways to set out these actions in a logical order to set out your plan and start thinking about timings is to create a Gantt chart for your Project Plan. A Gantt Chart shows activities against time, so that you can see at a glance when an action needs to happen and how long it should take.

Microsoft Excel does have a few examples among their templates, (see screen shot below for one I found when I searched for a “project plan”), which you can then adapt to suit your purposes. Otherwise, you can draw up your own simple version as I have done in my example which continues below.

Gantt Project Plan Example

An easy way to get started is to begin listing your actions and assigning rough dates to them. So, in the image below, you can see that I have listed my actions and have blocked out when the action should be taking place on a simple monthly basis. These actions still aren’t in order, but laying them out like this allows me to see what needs to happen earlier on in the project. I can then move the actions into a logical order so that the project plan flows through each action in turn to reach the end goal.

Note: when you begin, you may not know the exact dates actions will take place, some actions are dependent upon others. For example, “Pay off balance of flights and trek” is listed below without a date assigned. Until you have researched options and booked the flight and trek you will not know when this action needs to take place as every tour operator will have their own policies regarding deposits.

Project Plan Example 1

You’ll notice, on my next screenshot, that I have added additional actions as they have occurred to me. This is a vital part of the process as it is often hard to visualise every aspect of the project at initial conception, when you start to work through and put your actions in order, any additional tasks that will need to be included should start occurring to you.

The plan has also evolved to include due dates for each action, along with a column to show whether it has been completed. This includes a colour coded key to make it easier to see at a glance what the situation is for each action, whether it is complete, still a work in progress, or overdue. Adding a column for notes is useful too, as it allows you to explain any overdue actions to everyone who has sight of the project plan.

Project Plan Example 2

What this plan does not have yet, is a space to assign actions to others. Most projects will not be completed in isolation, you’ll have a team of people helping you deliver the project. It is always best to include a column detailing who is responsible for each action so that everyone is clear about their role and responsibility to deliver on time. Under a column titled “Responsible” I have listed the person responsible for ensuring that action is completed – “Me” along with others who are involved – e.g. “Manager” in booking time off, and “Doctor” in receiving travel medication/advice.

Project Plan Example 4

Depending on how far you want to drill down into the details when planning, you can choose to include each of the tasks that sits under the main actions you have identified, for example, to book time off work you will need to:

  • Consult your team’s diary for the dates you want to book leave
  • Contact your manager with potential dates for leave request
  • Agree dates with your manager
  • Have leave signed off

You can choose to present this additional information in various ways, whether by including all the actions and tasks on the same plan, (as in the below screenshot example, with the tasks mentioned above highlighted using grey colour/italic text), you could have a Project Plan that only includes headline actions, or maintain a headline sheet with high-level actions only to make it easier to feedback progress to Project Sponsors that is supplemented by a more detailed Project Plan with all tasks outlined for the benefit of the Project Manager.

Project Plan Example 5

As we have hopefully demonstrated, putting together a Project Plan does not have to be complicated. You don’t have to buy in any expensive tools and technology unless you feel it would be of benefit to you. The example plan here was created from scratch in very little time using only Microsoft Excel.

You can make the plans more or less complex depending on your needs. This example is clearly a simple one, but projects plans can include costs, risks, overspill time allocated to each action and so on. However, we do recommend that you aim for simplicity. The biggest document isn’t always the best. If your intended audience don’t read or understand the plan because it is too detailed, or too complicated, then it has failed.

On a final note, your plan will constantly evolve. The planning process should be continuous throughout your project. Many things can happen to force you to change your approach and no plan could survive in its original form from the start to the finish of the project without being amended. Don’t be afraid to make changes.

Contact us at Active Outcomes if you’d like to know a bit more about project planning.