How to create a project plan — with templates

Man learns how to create a project plan on his computer

If you have a new project on the horizon but are worrying about how it will go, your concerns are understandable. Thankfully, project managers can prepare for better outcomes by putting in the time and energy required to craft a strong, clear project plan.

To help, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide explaining exactly what a project plan is and the steps needed to create one. This post will cover:

What is a project plan?

A project plan — also called a project management plan — is a specific document designed to outline the expectations, stages, schedules, deliverables, and metrics for a given project. These plans mitigate the risk of failure or the inability to deliver expected outcomes while making it easier to allocate resources, track progress, and create accountability across teams.

Project plans serve as guides for the entire initiative and a reference point if things should seem to be moving off course. The project manager creates the project plan by listing requirements from the outset and organizing the deliverables and goals into action items to be addressed in a specific order. The project manager uses the project plan to assign team members appropriate roles and tasks.

A project plan should include the following components.

Why are project plans important?

Without the guidance of a project plan, you’re likely to go off course when it comes to scope, budget, and timeline, producing an end result that fails to meet stakeholder expectations. From scope creep to unforeseen issues, any number of distractions and delays can take hold and create havoc on a project lacking a clear plan and objective.

Crafting a strong project plan removes any doubt about the goals and deliverables required to make a project successful and keeps your initiative on track.

Project plans help:

Teams that invest in project planning meet their goals 77% of the time

How to create a project plan in six steps

While project management plans are driven by the project requirements, stakeholder expectations, and available resources, most plans follow a similar structure to provide clarity and vision to everyone involved. Follow these six steps to create your project plan.

1. Define your project scope

Project scope is the all-encompassing outline defining what the project should include in order to be completed successfully. This entails listing all of the features, requirements, metrics, and deliverables expected by stakeholders as well as the project’s timeframe and budget.

By default, the project scope indicates what a project should exclude. Knowing what the project doesn’t involve can be essential for preventing the problem of scope creep, where the requirements of a project shift and grow over time, making it harder to define or achieve success in a given timeframe.

Defining project scope gives you the opportunity to establish clear goals and objectives. Goals are singular, broad, and long-term outcomes, whereas your objectives are smaller, more easily broken-down tasks required to achieve each goal. Project managers can use the SMART method to ensure the goals they set are:

Finally, define your key performance indicators (KPIs) to keep your project scope in line with the company’s bigger picture. Decide also what metrics you will use to measure your success. These can include resource capacity, budget variance, return on investment, and cycle time, to name a few.

2. Identify and meet with stakeholders

Stakeholders are anyone with a vested interest in your project. To identify your stakeholders, start with the people requesting or funding your project. Stakeholders can also include anyone who shares a part in making and delivering your product or service — company leadership, product owners, employees, and even customers.

Typical stakeholder roles for a project include:

One resource that can help project managers to identify stakeholder roles and responsibilities is a RACI chart, which stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. These adjectives can help define each stakeholder role and clarify expectations for tasks. For example, some team members might be in charge of creating content or developing a project, while the business analyst could be tasked with reviewing requirements and output.

RACI chart

To keep everyone on the same page, teams need to agree upon a communication method that promotes collaboration and transparency. Have a plan ready for retrospectives, feedback, and any necessary clarification throughout the course of the work. Make it clear from the beginning where stakeholders will or will not be permitted to provide input in order to keep processes efficient and on schedule.

3. Structure your project — deliverables, milestones, and dependencies

The next step is to create a blueprint of all the work involved to accomplish the project scope. This outline is critical for demonstrating to the entire team what will be expected moving forward.

When outlining the approach to the project, it can help to choose a project management methodology.There are two popular approaches to choose from — Agile and waterfall. While Agile supports a flexible approach to projects where teams work iteratively and simultaneously, waterfall encourages a linear system where phases and steps are required in order to continue moving forward. The best fit will depend on the scope of the project and the construction of the team in question.

Product roadmaps are also helpful when structuring and outlining a project plan. These are visual representations of how project managers foresee task management with opportunities to demonstrate long-term initiatives and how smaller tasks roll up into them. Roadmaps can promote transparent communication for teams by clearly depicting priorities and the steps to achieve them.

When making you structuring your project, be sure to do the following.

Define deliverables

  1. Define deliverables. Make the expected outcomes of the project clear with all requirements based on the agreed-upon scope.

Set milestones

  1. Set milestones. Establish the project schedule including dates or phases when specific tasks, iterations, or final deliverables should be completed.

Plan for dependencies

  1. Plan for dependencies. Consider how tasks are related and the order they need to be approached to allocate resources and remain on schedule.

Before finalizing your roadmap, conduct a risk management assessment. While unforeseen circumstances can arise during a project, taking time to anticipate pitfalls can help mitigate the impact of these interruptions. This includes considering potential risks and creating a risk response plan to address threats. Examples of project management risks include reduced resources, operational changes, scope creep, and cost problems.

4. Set your project budget

A project is often only as strong as its available resources, and your budget defines these. All the work to be done, including human capital and tangible assets, will rely on the funds in your budget. So it’s crucial to establish your budget during the planning phase. Here are the basics of setting a project budget:

  1. Break down all your goals into tasks. Review your scope of work and break down your goals into specific tasks and milestones. Start with your biggest tasks and break those into smaller subtasks until each task is easy to achieve. If you followed the previous step, you’ve already done a large part of this work.
  2. Estimate each task and allocate your resources. Research what each task will cost. Then add up the estimates for all the project tasks. Review your available funds and resources and allocate them accordingly. This includes resource management and the proper allocation of tangible assets, like equipment, alongside team members and capacity.
  3. Get stakeholder buy-in. Preparing a budget can also ensure stakeholder buy-in and executive approval. In some instances, the initial spending proposal may come from the project manager, requiring extensive review and approval from stakeholders before getting started. Cost management review can also help leaders understand the difference between fixed costs (i.e., one-off fees) and indirect costs (i.e., salaries) for a fuller picture of the project’s total expense.

The best budgets are as itemized as possible, demonstrating resource allocation, accurate spending expectations, and areas for leeway in the event a task does not go quite as planned.

5. Outline your schedule and timeline

Use your project’s outline to formalize a timeline and schedule. Note these are two completely different entities, and both are essential for a project to thrive.

A project timeline is a graphic, chronological representation of all tasks indicating due dates along with dependencies, assignees, and scope for each task. A schedule is the list of forecasted dates of when specific tasks and project milestones should be completed.

Here are some tips for figuring out both your timeline and schedule:

Use Gantt charts and Kanban boards

6. Present the project plan to stakeholders

With the project details in place, the last piece is the executive summary. While it appears first in a project plan, you’ll write it last as a high-level overview of the detailed plan you’ve created. The executive summary gives stakeholders a high-level review of all the essentials for a project plan that necessarily goes into minute detail. Stakeholder understanding and approval are critical for clear communication of expectations for what will be completed as well as when and how the work will be done.

Your executive summary should include the following sections.

  1. Introduction. Give a statement of purpose for the project and your role in it.
  2. Problem. Clearly state the problem you are trying to solve.
  3. Solution. Broadly show how you plan to solve the problem.
  4. Proof of value. Show why your solution is worthwhile.
  5. Timeline and budget. Give the condensed timeline and overall budget amount.
  6. Conclusion. Re-emphasize the importance of the project.

It can also be helpful to create a communications plan to keep stakeholders current throughout the project. Look for ways to make these updates easy to follow and quick to review. Regular stakeholder meetings or email summaries can help ensure essential feedback makes it back to the individual contributors working to fulfill the project requirements.

Once you present your project plan to executives and get their approval, the project can finally kick off with a higher expectation of success.

Project plan template

Project managers looking to get started on a project plan of their own should not feel intimidated. You can rest assured all plans are unique to the project, industry, and business they represent. However, there are project plan templates you can use to get started.

Here are the elements to include as you write your own plan. Feel free to customize the sections or elaborate as needed to make sure all of your individual needs are covered.

Crafting a strong project plan removes any doubt regarding the goals and deliverables required to make a project successful.

You’re now ready to get going with your project plan. You can also keep yourself on the right track with online templates designed to simplify the process. Learn how to create templates in Adobe Workfront.

Creating your first project plan with the right tool

Project plans are designed to improve productivity and ensure efforts remain on task to deliver expected outcomes. Ultimately, project plans create a greater opportunity for success across the businesses and teams using them.

When you’re ready to begin a new project plan, jotting down your goals and projected outcomes can be a great starting point. Consider what is being asked of you and what you will need in terms of resources in order to accomplish the goal. From there, you can start to outline your requirements, define a budget, create timelines, and prepare a comprehensive project plan that will keep everyone, and everything, on track.

There are also tools you can use to make this process easier to manage, audit, and share. Adobe Workfront is designed to drive collaboration and help leaders tie metrics to outcomes, so you can be sure your project is delivering on all points. Manage the entire project lifecycle from a single system that users can access from anywhere, empowering teamwork and centralizing projects to create greater efficiencies.

Learn how Workfront can help you create effective project plans and get more details by taking a free product tour or by watching the overview video.