How to Plan a Project

Welcome to the wonderful world of project management! The Project Management Institute (PMI), the PM’s foremost authority, identifies five basic steps in the project lifecycle.  

  1. Initiating 
  2. Planning 
  3. Executing 
  4. Controlling 
  5. Closing 

This post zooms in on how to plan a projectcreating a workable plan to accomplish the project’s purpose. The planning phase lays out HOW the project will be executed.

You can review the first post on Initiating a project here.

Define Scope

When you begin to plan a project always start with scope. What is this project going to entail? Psst, sometimes it’s easier to start with what the project does NOT cover.  

Define deliverables/requirements 

To begin, look at the bottom line of the project. What deliverables are needed to complete the goal? What requirements MUST be fulfilled? By isolating these key items, you’ll be able to begin digging into the activities associated with each. Be sure to validate these with stakeholders and other key parties to avoid overlooking an area or tackling an item best done at a different time.  

Define Activities 

For each of the deliverables or requirements, work to identify the steps involved in completing it. You may find it useful to create a work breakdown structure (WBS). This graphic representation of the project will help bring order to chaos and visually map the project. There is no need to fret about the order of operations yet, simply catalog the work to be done.  

At this point of the project, the project manager should have an idea of who will be working on the project—this “core team” is an important resource to create a fully integrated project estimate. Bring them in to review the WBS. Not only does this help with accuracy, but it also creates team buy-in at an early stage.  

Sequence Activities 

When you plan a project, consider the defined activities—what, if anything, must happen first? After you mark task dependencies, you get a better idea of how to schedule them. Can any jobs run concurrently to save time? What can be done in advance? Think about the relationship between tasks and do your best to schedule things logically—not just for you, but for the entire project team. Have trouble getting started? Sometimes, it’s easier to start at the end and work backward.  

One way to sequence activities is the Critical Path Method, an analysis technique that helps PMs decide which activities are critical in their effect on the project’s timeliness and how to best schedule tasks to meet the project close date. While this method isn’t great for projects with “squishy” timelines or activities, it is for those that are well-defined, with tangible deliverables or jobs that must be performed exactly in order. To find the critical path, ask each task, “Would this delay the rest of the project?”

Estimate Resources 

Now is the time to consider who can get the work done.  

  1. Familiarize yourself with the team at your disposal.  
  2. Have you or the company ever done this type of project before? Check out the documentation for similar endeavors, by analyzing prior data, you’ll be able to make a superior guess on resources.  
  3. Be sure to consider your resources’ commitments and schedules. An overbooked, though a talented person may add more stress to the project than it’s worth. 
  4. Run different scenarios. No one said project management was easy! There are a ton of moving parts and ways that things may work out. Specifically, consider resource cost vs the time needed to perform the task. What is the best, or sometimes the safest, route? 

Visit the PMI Learning Library for a great, in-depth article on accurate project estimating. 

Estimate Activity Durations 

How long are the tasks going to take? Answering this question well is difficult, unless you’ve performed the activities yourself, and even then, there can be much variability in the time it takes person to person. Sure, googling industry standards is one way to get a number, but invariably, estimating productivity rates is best done in a team-based planning style. Rope in your core team to get their take.  

Importantly, remember to build in a contingency reserve of time for your project.  

Develop a Schedule  

The next step is to schedule the start and end date of each milestone. There are a vast number of factors and moving parts to keep in mind. On top of that, selecting a scheduling model and tool go hand in hand. Gone are the days of sticky notes—the complexity of the software needed is proportional to the amount and complexity of the project. As a Microsoft Partner, Advisicon is familiar with the full PM tool suite and provides organizational assessments to match businesses with the exact project management tool they need. Reach out now to request more information or learn more about the different versions of Project here

Estimate Costs 

Now that a schedule has been made, it’s time to dig into the cost of each task. Be sure to look at time, materials, assumptions, and constraints. A few tips for the complex task of estimating costs: 

  • Develop a range estimate, not a single number. 
  • Make it reasonable—idealism has its place, but this isn’t it.  
  • Allow for risk. Few things are certain, but certainly, the project won’t go 100% to plan. 
  • Make certain your WBS isn’t missing anything. Now that we have the bottom line in mind, inspect tasks for hidden costs.   

Still not sure of your estimates? A common way of estimating is PERT or Program Evaluation and Review Technique. This three-point technique should output a safe estimate.   

  1. Pessimistic estimate (P). Develop this estimate by thinking that all worst-case scenarios will happen.  
  2. Most likely estimate (L). What will happen most often?  
  3. Optimistic estimate (O). Consider the best-case scenario to make this estimate.  


Project Management Planning Process

While defining the full scope of the project, simultaneously think about how to manage it.  

Plan Scope Control 

Many a project has been destroyed by scope creep. Create a scope management plan documenting how it is defined, validated, and controlled. 

Plan Project Schedule 

Look at the tools at your disposal and choose one that lets you manage the project’s schedule confidently. When and how will you manage it? Establishing a plan now sets you up for success.  

Plan Communication 

How will you handle communications? At which points do you need to reach out to your team. Is there a reminder schedule? Can you set up auto-alerts? Dive into your digital PM tool of choice and check for automation opportunities, then put them into place.   

Plan Resources 

How will you handle resources? What about if someone is out sick or has an emergency? What is the turnaround time for requisitioning backup workers? Can you step into some tasks if needed, and is that a wise choice? Set up specific protocols and systems in this area.  

Plan Procurement 

Procurement is a special area that steps outside of your organization. What vendors will you be working with for the project? Plan to gather bids, evaluate companies, and manage these external resources and their timelines.  

Plan Change Management 

Changes in a project are inevitable, but how will you choose to respond as the project manager? Document how changes will be addressed and made in the project. 

Plan Risk Management 

With all things there are risks, but how does one choose to respond? Prepare yourself for when risks escalate to issues. Record exactly how these will be monitored and managed.  

Plan Quality Management 

If the project is completed, but it isn’t done well, it’s not really a success. Think about how quality will be managed and create a set plan to do so.   

Plan Cost Management 

No one wants their project to go over budget and this step helps ensure that this isn’t the case. Document areas where costs might be cut or areas to invest more in if funds become available. As with all things, plan to leave yourself a cushion for the unknown. Mapping and controlling the budget are crucial elements of project management.  

Plan Reporting 

Plan when and how you’ll deliver reports and which data is most influential in each setting. Giving regular updates helps keep everyone on the same page and boosts buy-in. Document exactly how you’ll do it and your schedule to do so.  

Risk Assessment

Problems, issues, pitfalls—while it might be painful to think of them, it’s way more painful to not think of them and be surprised mid-project, potentially derailing all activity. It’s not all bad, though. The PMBOK guide technically defines risk as, “…an uncertain event or condition, that if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project objective.” Begin to list all the uncertainties in your project. Then, assign them an impact rating. Go through each and decide how likely it is that the risk will occur. Advisicon has several risk tools that are invaluable for a project manager. Visit our store to view them all.  

Managing Issues and Risks Flowchart

Best Practices in Risk Management Webinar

Review everything you’ve developed in the planning phase so far, how do risks affect these, and does anything need to change? Make the necessary tweaks to make a better plan. 


Planning Documents

All this planning comes to a head in the creation of documents for the higher-ups to review. Present these important plans and look forward to them poking holes in them—it will only make your project stronger moving! When putting together these documents, think about your audience and what they’ll expect—some leadership teams want just the overview and to reach out with specific questions and others want all the nitty-gritty up front. Use your best judgment to craft documents that people want to read.  

Project Scope Management Plan 

The scope management plan consists of two different parts: 

  1. Deliverables/Requirements Document 
  2. Baseline Schedule and Budget 

Project Management Plan 

The project management plan is a more comprehensive document that presents six main areas: 

  1. Communication plan 
  2. Resource plan 
  3. Procurement plan 
  4. Change management plan 
  5. Risk management plan 
  6. Quality management plan 

Once you’ve got your plans signed off on by the project sponsor, steering committee, Project Management Office, and any other necessary parties, upload the documents into your document repository system. Now, the planning phase is complete and you move into the project work itself.