Build a smarter project plan with these strategies and templates

No matter how large or small a project may be, its success is almost always tied to the quality and accuracy of its project plan. Project plans are meant to compile and house the entirety of a project’s key assessment information. These are critical for your business’ ability to greenlight new endeavours

What’s a project plan?

Project plans vary widely in size and intent. Enterprise organisations considering a new product line might need reams of data to settle on a final direction. In contrast, a small business can be far more nimble in their decision making. The commonality between those two extremes is a project manager’s ability to provide the necessary information in a concise, relevant, and accurate manner.

Here are a few tips on how to do so in your next project plan.

Keys for a smarter project plan

Think like a journalist. Before they ever pick up a pen and pad, trained journalists are taught to report along the age-old adage of the five W’s: who, what, why, when, and where. “How” doesn’t fit the snazzy catchphrase, but it’s lumped in there, too.

That approach is equally applicable for project managers who are putting pen to paper on a new project plan. It’s critical to account for each of those components when building a comprehensive plan. This will garner stakeholder alignment and keep progress on track over long periods of time. Think of the W’s (and the “H”) in this tiered structure:

  • What is the key deliverable, product, or business outcome that the project is meant to create?
  • Why does a business need those deliverables? · How to best engineer the desired outcome?
  • Who will be needed to service this project plan?
  • When does this plan need to be executed and is that timeline rigid or flexible?
  • Why does a business need those deliverables, i.e. what is the purpose or strategic placement of that deliverable, product, or business outcome?
  • Where are my project’s greatest risks and how can I best account for those in a projected outcome?

Consider halting your project initiation until your project plan can answer all these questions. These challenges are likely to cause deep and systemic problems if left uncorrected.

Invest time early to save time later

It’s rare to find comprehensive up-front planning damaging a project plan. Remember though, every type and size of business project will have to evolve during its execution. Even the agile framework, which allows for a certain degree of unknowns, relies upon a stable set of alignments between primary parties.

Set up interview times with key project stakeholders to get an in-depth understanding of the “what” and “why” in your project plan. Having thorough documentation of the broadest objectives means you can fill your plan with the context team members will need to provide accurate time and resource estimates.

Use product plan templates when possible

The concept of a project plan template can be a bit tricky depending on how the term is being used. In the classical approach, a project plan is represented as a series of tabs in a central data processing document to outline things like required budgets, work hours, key tasks, and an overarching project Gantt chart. Use a template like this to get a head start on that kind of presentation.

But those kinds of data-heavy documents tend to focus more on a project’s “how” as opposed to its “what” and “why.” That’s why project plans can also be a broader collection of documents. A template like this one can help you hone in on key information and statements that can spark discussion (and hopefully agreement) around a project’s macro initiatives.

You might also need to prepare other documents, based on your project or company’s needs. Make sure you know whether these will be expected in your next presentation:

1. Project charter or simply an outline of project objectives, team, and key stakeholders

2. Project communication plan if multiple stakeholders are involved, in particular, third parties (i.e. customers or executive team)

3. Project template, including project risk assessment.

Include an executive summary

Regardless of how many of those documents your project plan might require, keep in mind that deep project specifics are not for everyone. High-level decision makers may only be interested in a simple objective statement and ROI projection. Leave the granular details for the teams responsible for them.

Strongly consider an executive summary to pair with your project plan documents. The larger your project, the more teams and individuals it will involve. Not all of them will need deep dives into the “how” of a project.

A brief but powerful overview, including the key metrics that are most likely to resonate, can help your peers save time and energy in their review process.

Identify your project methodology

Project management methodologies like waterfall and agile are intertwined with a project’s likelihood of success. Matching a rigid structure like waterfall to an iterative product development process will create systemic tension from start to finish.

A good project plan should both recommend and plan for a set methodology. A project manager sits at the nexus of multiple key data flows, making you the subject matter expert on whether waterfall, agile, or another management system is the best fit to get things done.

Most importantly, use your project plan as an opportunity to flag points that require a certain degree of flexibility. Setting those kinds of expectations can help surface underlying issues that need to be resolved.

No one-size-fits-all project plan

Unfortunately, one-size-fits-all project plan examples are hard to come by. Business projects and product initiatives are simply too varied and need-specific to condense down into a universal template. Remember, project plans are only as helpful as they are tailored to the task at hand.

But these tips and component document templates can help you account for those specificities, making sure you compile the right data for the right job. With that kind of quality information in-hand, you can start building smarter and more accurate project plans. This will ultimately lead to better projects.

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