When you’re in the thick of a project, it can be hard to see the whole picture. How do you know that you’re staying on track and that everyone is doing their part?
A project plan is that big snapshot, but it’s also a living document – a daily record of what’s getting done, the conversations between colleagues, the upcoming to-dos, and the deadline keeper.
The project plan is the epicenter of your project universe, and it holds the key to its success.
What is a project plan?
A project plan, or project management plan, is an important document containing the scope, team, and timeline of your project.
The project plan is made before the project begins but can be changed as the project moves forward. It sets the basic work breakdown structure for the team members and project stakeholders to follow. You, the project manager, are the head, but the project plan is the brain. It contains all the hard thinking done beforehand so that when the start date arrives, you’re ready to take action.
A project plan covers important questions every team encounters when faced with a big challenge. It answers:
- When to do things and in what order? Your plan should set forth both major and minor deadlines from the beginning, lending urgency to your work and giving you ways to find out if you’re not on target to finish on time.
- Who’s going to do what? Your plan should create accountable parties for each element of the project, so nothing slips between the cracks and all aspects of the project are spoken for.
- How do we know we’re getting there? Your plan should be transparent so the entire team (and other parties) can check in and see whether your people are on target for getting everything done on time.
When you answer these questions, you can meet your toughest deadlines, create transparency in your team, and make the best use of skills and tools.
Timing: when to do things and in what order
Ever have a manager who wants things done “yesterday”? Creating a sense of urgency among employees is hard to do, which is why you sometimes see this unnecessary pressure on the project schedule. Including a detailed timeline in your project plan allows you to stave off procrastination, motivate team members to deliver tasks on time, and reach your final goals on schedule.
If you have scoped the project beforehand or even just received a list of major deliverables from clients or executives, you know what needs to be done and the final due date. A project timeline is a visual roadmap that connects the dots from now until the final due date. It shows how long each task will take and when to start the next task.
Without a timeline, you just have a to-do list. By attaching timespans to tasks and task lists, you can start to see when things will be accomplished. The Gantt chart below presents an easy-to-understand visual of a new project.
Completed tasks are green, and upcoming tasks are purple. Once the project is underway, overdue tasks will be shown in red. The bars set up a hierarchy so that you always know the most urgent task, i.e., the next one up in the lineup.
The timeline assigns a specific start and end date, or timespan, to each task. The Gantt chart sets clear expectations for when work will be started, in progress, and completed, giving team members plenty of advance notice and guidance about the size of a task and the pace of work.
Project team members can also see what needs to be accomplished before their own tasks so that they won’t fall behind due to a dependency. The Gantt chart provides more information than you can get from a simple calendar, to-do list, whiteboard, or meeting.
To complete a project on time, you need to maintain consistent momentum. When you plan out spans for individual deliverables, you make sure there’s no lag time and that each day builds on the momentum of the days before it.
Assigning: who’s doing what
If a project is a movie, then your team is the cast and crew and they need to know what they should be doing at all times without the director reminding them. In the project plan, you can divide work among team members and record assignments. Task ownership creates accountability in your team. When team members take care of their individual responsibilities, you can guarantee that every small and large aspect of the project gets completed.
During the project, team members can refer to the project plan on a daily basis to see what’s next. They become the project managers of their own task lists. It also makes managing employees easier because the project manager can measure the balance of workloads, make sure specialists are being utilized, and provide opportunities for individual contributors to excel.
In the planning phase, you need to consider what tasks will be the best use of an individual team member’s skills and time.
In the example above, tasks in the Social Media Marketing project are doled out by specialty. One team member (who regularly manages internal operations) is responsible for establishing the publishing schedule for LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Another team member (who regularly interfaces with customers) will be responsible for promoting the new social accounts to the company’s email subscribers.
In addition to creating individualized to-do lists, assigned tasks also provide a point of contact for employee and manager. For instance, if the project manager wants to change the frequency or type of LinkedIn content, he/she can contact the assignee and let them know.
Most importantly, appropriate task assignments minimize the amount of oversight required to get things done. When everyone knows what to do and is assigned a workload that matches their capabilities and challenges them to perform, they can excel in their roles and meet project goals.
Analyzing: how to know you’re making progress
As a plan comes together, you’ll start to notice that you’re creating a litmus test for the success of your project. How closely you adhere to the project plan can be a measure of progress, a warning sign, or evidence of changing objectives. A transparent plan can help team members and project stakeholders analyze how well the project is going at any given time.
When the project plan is shared widely, you open the floor for any contributor or stakeholder to weigh in, ask questions, and discuss the work. Individual opinions are heard and valued.
In-app chat in your project management software is especially helpful for immediate feedback. The egalitarian atmosphere makes it easier to get buy-in from a diverse group of participants.
The more open you make your plans, the more you dedicate yourself to constant improvement. You hold yourself and your team to a certain standard of performance and are more likely to come up with collective solutions to difficult problems.
The project plan makes progress quantifiable. You can see the data of tasks completed ahead of time, overdue tasks, and tasks that may be discarded in the end. You can see which employees are succeeding within the parameters given and which ones need more hands-on management. As time moves forward, it’s easy to judge how the project is being managed and how well it was planned.
When you establish a practice of creating project plans for every project you manage, you and your team members will improve faster. Each project plan builds on your company’s past experiences and will give you the competitive advantage of always working smarter than yesterday.
A flexible project management tool will allow you to create a project plan that evolves with your progress. Putting your plan in the cloud makes it easier to post updates instantly and share with your team and clients around the world.
Manage your next project with a Redbooth project plan template.