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 a project is delivered on-time and on-budget.

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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 work and not enough time for creative work.

Ultimately, the planning phase of project management determines how smoothly your projects move through the life cycle, which is why it's so important to spend some 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. If unexpected issues arise (e.g. 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 timelines and stages, metrics, activities, milestones, deliverables, manufacturing, risk management, quality, procurement, staffing, communications, and dependencies, among others considerations.

Learn how to write a project plan

Pre-planning: Meeting with stakeholders

Prior to developing a project plan, the project manager should explain the purpose of the plan to key stakeholders. Stakeholders, or the individuals affected by the project, need to understand what goes into planning their project. Stakeholders may include project sponsors, business experts, the project team, and end users.

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 kickoff meeting for stakeholders. The meeting may be used to discuss the business vision from the project sponsor, roles and responsibilities, team dynamics, decision-making, and other ground rules.

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Project planning process

Create a scope statement

A scope statement “documents what the project will produce and what it will not.” After a project manager understands the stakeholder requirements for a project, 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.

Create a statement of work

A statement of work (SOW) contains project details including timelines, requirements, and components. An SOW is 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. An SOW helps prevent scope creep and shifting project requirements.

Conduct research

From stakeholder interviews to project risks, conducting research is an essential step in the planning phase of project management. 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 project ownership and decision making, key dates and times when the stakeholders are away, and preferred communication methods.

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.

Create a project plan

The next step in the planning phase is to actually draft the individual components of the project plan. The first draft should provide a rough sketch of the general process, project deliverables, signoffs, resourcing, deadlines, and stakeholder feedback.

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.

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.

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.

Ongoing responsibilities

Over the course of a project, a project manager should continually analyze project quality, monitor risk, and communicate effectively.

Monitor project quality and risks

The project manager is responsible for monitoring project quality to ensure the end result meets expectations. Project quality is proactive—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 who receives which reports and how issues will be handled. It also details where project information is stored and who has access.

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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.