The Project Planning Process

The project planning process starts before work on the actual project begins and continues throughout the life cycle of the project. Its main goal is to adequately plan the time, cost and resources needed for the project and thus to minimize risk. The main output of the project planning process is the project plan (or project management plan), which includes the project schedule as well as various supporting plans.

The Project Planning Process

Project Management Planning — Step by Step

The following is a simple guide that explains the basic steps of project management planning. Note that the suggested order of the steps is not binding, although it is applicable to most scenarios.

Step 1: Identify Project Stakeholders

Start your project planning process by identifying the stakeholders of your project. Project stakeholders are individuals, groups, or organizations who may affect or be affected by a project. They include:

  • The project sponsor
  • The project leader
  • Project team members
  • Project testers
  • Contractors
  • Consultants
  • Customers and clients
  • Users of the project output
  • Groups impacted by the project
  • And others

The task of stakeholder management starts with the identification of all stakeholders but doesn’t end until the project itself is completed. Throughout the life cycle of the project, stakeholders need to be managed, that is, updated about project progress and their feedback taken into consideration. Good communication is key, and it is the job of the project manager to maintain a productive dialog with everybody involved in and affected by the project, not only the core project members.  

Project Stakeholders Mind Map

On the other hand, some projects may be so large and complex that you aren’t able to give all stakeholders an equal amount of attention. In this case, it’s important to identify the key stakeholders, i.e. those who can make or break the success of your project. Key stakeholders can include the project sponsor (the individual with overall accountability for the project) and senior management. Prioritizing the needs and objectives of key stakeholders will help increase the chances of your project’s success.

Step 2: Identify Project Goals and Objectives

A project’s goals and objectives depend on the needs of the project stakeholders. Therefore, knowing who your stakeholders are and what their needs are is the first step in determining your project’s goals. A good way to determine stakeholders’ needs are stakeholder interviews, which you should conduct at the very beginning of the project planning process.

Tip: You can take notes during these interviews and save them directly in a project stakeholder mind map, similar to the one pictured above.

Once you have a clear overview of your (key) stakeholders’ needs, you can turn them into a set of measurable goals, following the SMART principle:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Agreed
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Goals vs Objectives

Project goals are the desired outcomes of a project, which can be formulated into broad statements such as “Increase the number of website visitors by 30% by the end of the year” or “Collect 500 sales qualified leads within the next three months”. A project can have multiple goals.

Goals are about WHAT the project needs to achieve. Objectives, on the other hand, are about HOW these goals can be achieved. Each goal can thus have a number of objectives.

Example:

Goal:

  • Collect 500 sales qualified leads within the next three months

Objectives:

  • Create a white paper about the benefits of agile task management to collect marketing qualified leads
  • Set up a campaign on LinkedIn to send potential leads to the white paper landing page
  • Follow the white paper up with a webinar to turn readers into sales qualified leads

Step 3: Identify Project Deliverables

Project deliverables are the tangible products that are produced or provided as a result of the project. We can generally distinguish between two types of deliverables:

  1. Project deliverables, such as the project plan, minutes, or reports.
  2. Product deliverables, such as intellectual material, consumer goods, contracts, and so on.

Deliverables have the following attributes:

  • They can be intended for both internal and external stakeholders: Minutes, for instance, may be intended for the core project team, while official reports may be created to keep the client or other external stakeholders informed.
  • They usually have a due date: Due dates are an important part in project planning — this is true for goals, objectives, deliverables, and individual tasks.
  • They may represent stages of a project: Phases or stages of a project may be represented by major deliverables. In case of a new mobile app, for instance, deliverables/phases could include: 1. App concept, 2. Mockup, 3. Design, and 4. Functioning prototype.
  • They may represent individual tasks within a project: Individual tasks can produce deliverables, but oftentimes multiple (dependent) tasks have to be completed in order to create a deliverable.

Deliverables vs Objectives

Project deliverables and project objectives are closely related, but they are not the same thing. You may need one or multiple deliverables to fulfill an objective, or you may be able to fulfill multiple objectives with just one deliverable.

Example:

Objective:

  • Set up a campaign on LinkedIn to send potential leads to the white paper landing page

Deliverables:

  • White paper landing page
  • LinkedIn ad
  • Campaign report

In this example, there is a logical order in which the deliverables will be due: first, the landing page needs to be created, then the ad campaign, and lastly, after the campaign is finished, a report about the success of the campaign can be written up.

Note that in this example, each deliverable can be broken down further into individual tasks, which themselves may be assigned to different project members. The creation of a landing page, for instance, may require content from the copywriter, a design from the UI designer, and implementation from a developer.

Step 4: Create the Project Schedule

Project schedule

In traditional project management, the project schedule lists all activities and deliverables with their intended start and end dates, and thus provides a timeline for the entire project.

To work out the schedule for your project, you will need to:

  • Define activities based on your objectives and deliverables
  • Break activities down into tasks
  • Estimate the time each task will take
  • Locate task dependencies and accommodate them in the schedule
  • Assign (human) resources to the tasks

Once you know exactly what needs to be done, who will do it, and how long everything takes, you can work out the entire project schedule. While simple in theory, this is probably one of the most difficult areas within the whole project planning process.

If you can’t rely on experiences gathered from previous projects, accurately estimating how long tasks will take is the first difficulty. And even if you work out the perfect schedule on a task level, this plan is of little worth unless you’ve also created a viable resource schedule.

Human resources especially are difficult to manage, as their needs and availabilities often can’t be predicted with a 100% accuracy. Project members may get sick, go on vacation, or simply work slower than anticipated. If not scheduled properly, one resource may also be needed for two different activities at the same time, sometimes resulting in disputes between stakeholders about which task needs to be prioritized.

Best Practices for Project Scheduling

Many of the common problems in project scheduling can be anticipated and mitigated, if not avoided altogether. Here are a few strategies you can try:

Use Padding:

Most people tend to underestimate how long an activity will take them to do. If you can estimate by how much team members have underestimated the effort of their tasks, you can balance the missing time in the schedule. Although sometimes frowned upon, “padding” can be a simple trick to come to a more accurate schedule.

Identify Risks:

During the life cycle of a project, many complications can occur — sudden changes in the business environment, new technologies, and many other things may lead to delays or disruptions. Conducting a proper risk analysis at the beginning of the project planning process will ensure that these risks aren’t completely unforeseen and help you prepare for them as best as possible.

Manage Expectations:

It’s important to ensure that leadership has realistic expectations about the project’s scope and the time and resources necessary to complete goals. If expectations are too high and the project team is unable to meet them, this can lead to frustration on both sides. As the project manager, you, therefore, need to communicate clearly what is known (and can be predicted), what is unknown, and which risks exist.

Spot Bottlenecks Quickly:

Bottlenecks can derail a project schedule if they aren’t spotted quickly. You should, therefore, monitor work throughout the project’s life cycle, using a task management system that makes it easy to detect bottlenecks at a glance and relocate resources to solve the issue. Kanban boards, which were originally created in the automotive industry but have since become popular in software project management and many other industries, can be useful in this case.  

Kanban Board

Step 5: Create Supporting Plans

Your project plan needs to include all the information necessary to manage, monitor, and complete the project successfully. Aside from the project schedule, the stakeholder list, the goals, and objectives, the document usually includes various supporting plans that cover the following areas:

Step 6: Outline the Project Plan

Now that you know the contents of a project plan, it’s time to look at how the project plan document is structured. By default, a project plan starts with an executive summary that provides an overview of the entire project management approach, followed by the project scope, goals and objectives, schedule, budget, and other supporting plans.

Before you open a blank text document and start to write, it can be helpful to create a simple project plan outline. You can use a mind map tool or similar diagramming software for this purpose. Outlining your project plan in a mind map will help you collect all important information on a single page, visualize dependencies, and highlight open questions and issues that still need to be addressed.

Project Plan Outline

Such a mind map can also be saved as a template and reused in future projects.

Once you’re satisfied with the outline, you can export it into a text document and start fleshing it out with more details.

Create visual project plans with MindMeister

Try it now

See also:

Project planning tools

How to create a project communications plan

Document writing, step by step