When beginning a project, especially when you’re involving multiple stakeholders, it’s important to start with a project management plan. Your project management plan (also called a project plan) contains the scope, objectives, and timeline, making it easier to communicate with your stakeholders and keep everyone on track. Making the plan doesn’t have to be complicated, and you just need to follow a few basic steps.

Your project management plan serves as the formal document or set of documents that define the stages, controls, and execution of a project. The project plan includes communications, resources, risk management, scope, cost and schedules. Some typical project plan documents include the following:

  • Project Charter – The general overview of the project, including goals, stakeholders, and objectives.
  • Statement of work – Defines the scope, schedule, milestones, tasks, and deliverables.
  • Work Breakdown – Breaks the scope in any phases, subprojects, work packages, and interim steps and deliverables.
  • Project Plan – Includes plans for scope management, risk assessment, resource management, quality management, and communications.
  • Change Management Plan – Defines the process for any changes that might occur during the project process. If the scope changes, who signs off on the changes? How will deliverables change? How will changes be communicated?

Your project may not require all of these documents, or they may be consolidated into fewer documents, but each item is worth considering.

Also make sure you have an agreed-upon set of terms to reduce misunderstanding. Common project management terms you may encounter include:

  • Stakeholders – Anyone impacted by the project, including the client and end-user
  • Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) – Your technical resources who will assist with the project
  • Gantt Chart – A bar graph that illustrates the steps, duration, and relationships
  • RACI Chart – A matrix that helps identify level of stakeholder involvement for each phase or deliverable (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed).

Define The Scope

First you need to know what the project is trying to accomplish. Work with your stakeholders to identify and define the scope, so you have an agreed-upon definition of the boundaries, deliverables, milestones, and requirements. The project plan is your opportunity to define your approach and process based on the scope. Your project plan lets you communicate key information to your stakeholders, not just the deadline dates. The plan should answer some vital question, such as:

  • What are the primary deliverables?
  • How will you achieve the deliverables?
  • What’s the deadline?
  • Who are the project team members?
  • What are their roles?
  • How will the team communicate milestones?
  • What steps require outside contingencies?

Your project plan should answer these questions to educate the team on logistics and create a strategic approach. Your answers can also help as a viability check to identify any timeline or resource gaps so you can identify them earlier. Many projects will look feasible at the initial review, and upon further review, additional problems are revealed. If you identify that a project is too costly or can’t be completed for various reasons, it’s better to identify that early before committing too many resources to a doomed project.

Define and Schedule the Project Activities

Break the overall project requirements into smaller steps, which lets you assign stakeholders to different tasks. This structure helps you plan and coordinate activities based on stakeholder skills and availability. Once you’ve identified the necessary steps, you’ll need to put them in a logical order. What steps need to be completed before another can begin? Which tasks can be completed independently and simultaneously? Which steps are time-consuming and need to be started immediately?

Every project, regardless of size and complexity, can be broken into similar phases for organization:

  • Initiation
  • Planning
  • Execution
  • Monitoring
  • Closure

Estimate Time Commitments and Costs

To complete a project successfully, you need to know how long each step will take and also how much it will cost. If you skip this step, you run the risk of missing the client’s deadline, which can harm your reputation and break the relationship. Even if you meet the deadline, you risk overworking your stakeholders, pulling them off other projects, and creating unnecessary stress and chaos. If you don’t understand the project’s costs, you may be spending more on the project than it’s worth to you or your company.

Assign Resources

In a perfect project management world, you’d have access to a team of resources fully committed to your project. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen and you’ll typically need to juggle resources with other commitments. Identify the skills needed, such as technical, executive, relational, or entry-level. This helps you determine the sequence and a realistic timeline. Talk to your stakeholders about their other commitments, such as other project deadlines or vacation time. Ask stakeholders to assist with assign backups for any absences.

Define Roles and Responsibilities

This step is not the same as identifying team members. One team member might have multiple roles or responsibilities, or you may have several people assigned to one role. Common project management roles include:

  • Project Manager
  • Project Sponsor
  • Project Contributors
  • Vendor Management
  • Client Relations

Identify Risks and Contingencies

Every project runs into issues, and the more you can plan in advance, the less chaos you’ll encounter. You need to consider the risks associated with your project. Types of risk include scope risk, schedule risk, and technical risks. Even with the best project plan, factors outside your control can impact your cost, scope, and time. You can plan for some risks, but your plan will need to be flexible. For example, if you have a daylong computer outage, you may need need to add time to one step which requires you to shorten another.

Look at historical information to identify risks and plan any workarounds. Does a key vendor have a history of late deliveries? Could your costs fluctuate? Are any required components still in development? Do you need to allow additional shipment time for weather delays? Are you dealing with changing government regulations or market/currency fluctuations? You’ll want to consider factors both inside and outside your project team to help mitigate these risk factors.

Set Goals & Objectives

Goals and objectives are two different terms when planning your project. Goals are the broad results you want to achieve, while objectives are the specific measurable steps to achieve that goal. Your goals and objectives should be clear from the preceeding steps, but now you’ll delve into each more thoroughly. This step lets you finetune the goals and how you’ll accomplish them.

Schedule a Kickoff Meeting

Gather the stakeholders for a kickoff meeting. This meeting is your opportunity to bring everyone together, communicate the project’s requirements, share the vision, complete any necessary introductions, and set the tone for the project. You may also get insight and input on your plan that you hadn’t considered.

Communicate Your Project Plan

Distribute your project plan to all stakeholders. This is also your opportunity to develop the communications plan, if you haven’t already done so. Will you use a shared document repository? How will stakeholders communicate progress with each other? Will you have regular status update meetings? Communication is key to the success of your project. Repeat that as many times as necessary: Communicate, communicate, communicate. The more contact you have with your stakeholders, the less risk of tasks falling behind or any confusion on responsibilities, timelines, or deliverables.

Consider Your Project Management Tools

Depending on the project’s complexity as well as your preferences, there are a number of project management tools available. Some of the common tools include Gantt charts, Excel spreadsheets, Word document, and flowcharts. If you’ll only be leading projects occasionally, you might want a different set of tools than if you typically lead multiple projects simultaneously.

Whether you develop your own or purchase an existing tool, it’s helpful to have a visual for the status for each step. For example, in an Excel document, you might use a pulldown statuses such as In Process, Overdue, In Review, Completed, or any status that makes sense for your project. Each of these statuses could automatically assign a color code, which lets you see the overall project status at a glance. You can also assign numerical values, which could tell you a project completion percentage.

Whatever process or tool you choose, make sure it’s helping you rather than creating unnecessary additional work. Your tool should be easy to use and provide the information relevant to your specific project. Various software features to consider may include schedule development, cost estimation, team management, risk monitoring, and resource allocation. Dashboards provide a high-level overview of the project status, while reports can help communicate with the stakeholders.

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