Project Management Basics: 6 Steps to a Foolproof Project Plan
It’s early Monday morning. Your executives call you into a meeting to go over some key initiatives they hope to achieve this quarter. You’re tasked with pulling together a handy-dandy project plan for your team to execute on these initiatives. They want it by the end of the week. But where do you begin?
Don’t panic! You don’t need to know all the project management basics to execute a successful project plan. Follow these six steps to create a foolproof plan and lead your team with confidence.
Step 1: Identify & Meet with Stakeholders
A stakeholder is anyone who is affected by the results of your project plan. That includes your customers and end users. Make sure you identify all stakeholders and keep their interests in mind when creating your project plan.
Meet with the project sponsors and key stakeholders to discuss their needs and expectations, and establish baselines for project scope, budget, and timeline. Then create a Scope Statement document to finalize and record project scope details, get everyone on the same page, and reduce the chances of costly miscommunication. Here’s a Scope Statement Template to get you started.
Tip: Look beyond the stakeholders’ stated needs to identify the underlying desired benefits. These benefits are the objectives your project should deliver.
Step 2: Set & Prioritize Goals
Once you have a list of stakeholder needs, prioritize them and set specific project goals. These should outline project objectives, or the metrics and benefits you hope to achieve. Write your goals and the stakeholder needs they address in your project plan so it’s clearly communicated and easily shareable.
Tip: “But everything is important!” If you’re having trouble prioritizing, start ranking goals based on urgency and importance, or check out these helpful decision making tips.
Step 3: Define Deliverables
Identify the deliverables and project planning steps required to meet the project’s goals. What are the specific outputs you’re expected to produce?
Tip: Set firm milestones for essential deadlines and deliverables. You’ll be able to track your progress once work begins to ensure you complete tasks on time and keep stakeholders happy.
Step 4: Create the Project Schedule
Look at each deliverable and define the series of tasks that must be completed to accomplish each one. For each task, determine the amount of time it will take, the resources necessary, and who will be responsible for execution.
Next, identify any dependencies. Do you need to complete certain tasks before others can begin? Input deliverables, dependencies, and milestones into your Gantt chart, or choose from the many online templates and apps available.
Tip: Involve your team in the planning process. The people performing the work have important insights into how tasks get done, how long they’ll take, and who’s the best person to tackle them. Draw on their knowledge! You’ll need them to agree with the project schedule and set expectations for work to run smoothly.
Step 5: Identify Issues and Complete a Risk Assessment
No project is risk-free. Crossing your fingers and hoping for the best isn’t doing you any favors. Are there any issues you know of upfront that will affect the project planning process, like a key team member’s upcoming vacation? What unforeseen circumstances could create hiccups? (Think international holidays, backordered parts, or busy seasons.)
When developing a project plan, consider the steps you should take to either prevent certain risks from happening, or limit their negative impact. Conduct a risk assessment and develop a risk management strategy to make sure you’re prepared.
Tip: Tackle high-risk items early in your project timeline, if possible. Or create a small “time buffer” around the task to help keep your project on track in the event of a delay.
Step 6: Present the Project Plan to Stakeholders
Explain how your plan addresses stakeholders’ expectations, and present your solutions to any conflicts. Make sure your presentation isn’t one-sided. Have an open discussion with stakeholders instead.
Next, you need to determine roles: Who needs to see which reports, and how often? Which decisions will need to be approved, and by whom?
Make your project plan clear and accessible to all stakeholders so they don’t have to chase you down for simple updates. Housing all project plan data in a single location, like a collaboration tool, makes it easy to track progress, share updates, and make edits without filling your calendar with meetings.
Communicate clearly. Make sure stakeholders know exactly what’s expected of them, and what actions they need to take. Just because it’s obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to them!
Not looking forward to having an open discussion with your stakeholders? Here are some strategies to arm yourself against difficult stakeholders to keep the project planning process moving forward.
Tip: If your plan or schedule doesn’t align with stakeholders’ original expectations, communicate that now to avoid any nasty surprises or tense conversations down the line.
Rather than telling stakeholders their expectation or request is unrealistic, tell them what’s required to make it happen, including how much time, money, or manpower. Let them decide if it’s worth dedicating the extra resources.
After You Create Your Project Plan
Congratulations, you’ve completed your project plan! Next step: Schedule a project kickoff meeting.
Now the real work begins. Setting the right tone in the kickoff meeting can make or break your project. Follow our 10-step project kickoff checklist to start your project on the right foot.