Project Planning Phase

how to plan a project

The project planning phase of the project management life cycle defines the scope and objective of a project. Proper project planning is one of the most important steps in ensuring everything is delivered on-time and on-budget.

It can help smooth out the planning phase, helping bring together complex workstreams. Whether your project is still an idea or you’re managing an ongoing project, use this guide to the planning phase in project management to get familiar with key concepts.

Table of Contents

What is project planning?

The project planning phase of project management is where a project manager builds the project roadmap, including the project plan, project scope, project schedule, project constraints, work breakdown structure, and risk analysis.

It doesn’t matter if the project is a new website or a new building, the project planning phase serves as a roadmap and acts as a control tool throughout the project. Project planning provides guidance by answering questions like:

Before we jump into the step-by-step of how to plan a project, let’s consider why the planning phase is such a critical piece of the project life cycle.

Purpose of project planning.

Project planning communicates deliverables, timing and schedules, along with team roles and responsibilities. During the planning phase of a project, the project manager is forced to think through potential risks and hang-ups that could occur during the project.

These early considerations can prevent future issues from affecting the overall success of the project, or at times, cause a project to fail. Too little planning causes chaos and frustration and too much planning causes a lot of administrative tasks, not allowing enough time for creative work.

Ultimately, the planning phase of project management determines how smoothly your projects move through the life cycle. That’s why it’s so important to spend ample time at the beginning of a project and get your planning right.

What is a project plan?

A project plan is a set of documents that can change over the course of a project. The plan provides an overall direction for the project, so drafting this is a key aspect of the project planning phase. If unexpected issues arise, such as delivery delays, the plan can be adjusted by the project manager.

Project plans are coordinated by the project manager, with input from stakeholders and team members. Plan components cover the “what” and “how” of a project.

Plans include details related to:

They also cover practical aspects such as:

While resource-related considerations are also included, like:

Learn how to write a project plan in more detail.

What is included in a project plan?

In project management, planning is a multifaceted process. A full project plan might include the following documents:

Project charter.

This is a short, formal summary of your project’s aims, methods and stakeholders. You’ll likely refer back to this document later in the project lifecycle and may find it a useful frame of reference when measuring success.

Project schedule.

Schedules list what needs to be done and when, including details of any tools, bookings or people you might need to utilize at each stage. This is sometimes paired with a work breakdown structure (WBS). Depending on the nature of your project, you might list activities, costs and allocated hours beneath each deliverable.

Cost management plan.

This is essentially a detailed budget. Using the project planning phase to identify procurements, suppliers and resources can help you to map your project’s price tag. A project manager might use this document to think about human resource costs and consider figures that might grow if elements of your project plan change.

Statement of work (SoW).

A statement of work can help you keep an eye on scope, by listing a breakdown of the project’s aims and tasks. It’s often more detailed and less formal than a project charter and you might include practical details, such as the location of meetings, quality standards and software requirements here.

Risk management plan.

This allows you to identify the project’s main hazards for your organization and their potential impact. Analyzing the likelihood of each risk, high, medium or low, can give you sight of where to focus your efforts right from the project planning phase.

Stakeholder management plan.

In project management, each department comes to the table with distinct priorities, so drafting a stakeholder management plan can help. This document can ensure you identify all stakeholders, assign roles and prioritize interests accordingly.

Quality plan.

This aspect of the planning phase sets quality standards and acceptance criteria for deliverables.

Good project planning software can streamline the document drafting process in project management. It might allow you to combine these elements of analyze them side-by-side, for instance.

Pre-planning: Meeting with stakeholders.

Prior to developing a project plan, the project manager should explain the purpose of the plan to key stakeholders. These are the organizations and individuals who are affected by the project and they need to understand what goes into planning their project – a key component of good stakeholder management.

Examples of stakeholders include:

Gaining buy-in from all stakeholders can be one of the most challenging components of project planning, yet it’s central to the project’s success. Projects fail when management isn’t supportive, or there is limited stakeholder engagement.

The project manager should host a project kick-off meeting for stakeholders. The meeting may be used to discuss the vision statement from the project sponsor, roles and responsibilities, team dynamics, decision-making, and other ground rules.

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How to create a project plan.

It’s simple to create a project plan for your next stream of work. Simply follow these seven steps.

1. Create a scope statement.

A scope statement documents what the project will produce and what it will not. Once a project manager understands the stakeholder requirements, they need to define the scope. This is a crucial step because the scope will serve as the foundation of the project plan.

By outlining project scope boundaries during the planning phase, a project manager can minimize the chance of unauthorized tasks popping up. A clear and accurate scope statement helps gain buy-in from stakeholders, while also minimizing risk.

Formalizing these decisions in a project charter document may help to cement the business case for the project. When project managers take the time to meet with key stakeholders from the very beginning, they can feed cross-department insights into the scope statement.

2. Create a statement of work.

A statement of work contains project details including project timelines, requirements, and components. It’s an essential document that projects both the client and agency as it is a legally binding document that details the amount a client will pay for certain deliverables.

A SoW can also help prevent scope creep and shifting project requirements, which can individually, and combined, derail the progress of a project.

3. Conduct research.

From stakeholder interviews to project risks, conducting research is an essential step. Project research is based on the scope of the project and stakeholder requirements.

During the research phase, the project manager is encouraged to attend stakeholder interviews, or at least suggest questions to be included in the interviews.

At this stage of the planning process, it’s important to understand:

The project manager should also dig into team dynamics in order to assign responsibilities appropriately. At this stage, the team should discuss expertise, interests, and collaboration. The goal here is to define ownership of individual tasks.

4. Identify risks.

Including a risk analysis as part of your project’s planning phase helps you to keep an eye on potential problems. You can also use risk analysis to plan how to mitigate risks to a project should they arise.

Focus areas might include scope risk, the possibility that a project could drift beyond its original aims due to internal or client demands. Technical risks can arise if mission-critical software or hardware breaks down, and this can impact your schedule, budget and goals.

The right software can make the process of ongoing risk management easier. If delay is a key risk to your project, the ability to view progress quickly can be invaluable.

5. Create a project plan.

The next step in the planning phase is to draft the individual components of the project plan. The first draft should provide a rough sketch of the general process, outlining:

Once the project manager has a general idea of how the project could go, they should share the draft with their team. Sharing the plan and asking for feedback from key team members ensures the plan is collaborative.

The project manager should adapt and change the path of the project to ensure the process works for everyone involved. As you draft project plan documents, think about:

6. Create a project schedule.

After the plan is drafted, the project manager needs to break the tasks into sections and map tasks to deliverables. This detailed step involves assigning tasks to organizations and individual responsibilities to people. This assignment of duties creates an important sense of accountability.

A project schedule includes specific start and end dates, along with notes that describe tasks. The schedule also notes dependencies. For instance, Task B cannot be completed until materials, as outlined in Task A, are delivered.

Spelling out dependencies illustrates how individual responsibilities will impact potential changes.

7. Review and approve the plan.

Before the project plan is finalized, the project manager needs to receive approval from stakeholders. To do this, they should build and maintain rapport with stakeholders to gain their trust.

If the project manager can prove that the project risks have been assessed and managed, and the project plan has been built to satisfy the overall vision of the sponsor, they can increase their chances of receiving approval.

What happens after a project plan is approved?

When your plan is in the books, you’re ready to start executing those strategies and proposals that have been put together. Here’s what you need to do once your project plan has been given the green light.

Assign team roles and ongoing responsibilities.

Over the course of a project, a project manager should continually analyze project quality, monitor risk, and communicate effectively. The plan may have been mapped out, but your project’s wheels start turning only when tasks are assigned.

Define responsibilities clearly, either by individual, group or department, depending on project scale. Ensure systems are in place for each task and line of communication to flow smoothly from the last.

Monitor project quality.

The project manager is responsible for monitoring project quality to ensure the end result meets expectations. Project quality is proactive and it involves error prevention and risk management.

A quality plan aids in this ongoing responsibility by outlining standards, acceptance criteria, and project metrics. It is used to guide reviews and inspections during the project.

Communicate effectively.

Effective communication is central to the success of a project. Project communications can be guided with a communications plan. This document clarifies:

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Project planning techniques.

After the project management planning phase, you want your groundwork to set things out in a way that works for everyone. Some useful techniques could make this more likely, including:

Ask open-ended questions and feed input into the content of your plan as well as its structure. Some project plans take a list form and other, large-scale projects need multiple branches to segment each — this may be displayed as a tree diagram. The answers you receive may help to guide the fundamentals of how you lay out your project plan.

In fact, charts, sheets and software can help you to visualize plans more broadly — think color coding and intuitive tabs. If it’s easy to digest, various team players will likely find it easier to plug in.

Practical techniques for project planning include PERT, which stands for Program Evaluation and Review Technique. This helps with timing estimates by using statistics to manage probabilities, so it’s easier to predict how hypothetical scenarios could impact your timelines.

How to maintain an ongoing project.

Naturally, the planning phase is just the beginning. Once your project is underway, managing the way things change can become a side project in its own right.

Set up pathways to deal with change and feed information into each branch of your current plan. If a cog in the chain alters, the best project plans are able to absorb this information quickly and direct it through all channels.

Your project might go through each of these life cycle stages:

Prioritization can help set the tone for success through each part of the journey.

Successful project planning.

The project planning phase is a roadmap for project managers. From pre-planning and meeting with stakeholders, to research, drafting, scheduling, and receiving final approval. All of these steps and subtasks help contribute to a successful project that aligns with the sponsor’s vision and overall objectives.

Frequently asked questions.

What is the definition of project planning?

Project planning outlines the purpose and scope of a project. It also addresses how you will approach and deliver it within a specific timeframe. We define project planning as a distinct phase within the project lifecycle.

In this phase, you’ll set out a roadmap for success, incorporating everything from the scope and projections of the project to its risks and constraints.

How can project planning help minimize risks?

Project planning can minimize risks in several ways. It can help you:

Risk analysis is therefore an integral part of the project planning process. Without it, you will be poorly prepared for the execution phase.

Why is project planning so important?

Project planning takes a lot of time and effort, but it is essential to delivering the finished product.

A solid plan can guide your team, stakeholders, managers and other parties through your project from start to finish. It allows you to set clear goals and objectives, allowing you to work out how best to achieve them.

Without adequate planning, projects can stray way off track and this can affect your bottom line. For example, in 2017, the Project Management Institute estimated that organizations lost an average $97 million on every $1 billion invested due to poor project management.