How to Create an Effective Plan, Step by Step | how to plan a project

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How do you create an effective plan?

If you’re working on your own, you might:

  • Start off by identifying your goal
  • Produce a work breakdown structure to identify the tasks required to achieve the goal
  • Identify the dependencies between the tasks
  • Come up with estimates for each task
  • Add resources
  • And so on.

But what would you do next?

The chances are that you would send this draft plan out to others for their comments and that’s where you’d go wrong. If you’re lucky you’ll receive back some great feedback. However, you are more likely to fail to get sufficient responses to challenge your plan and as a result you won’t get what you really need, which is a plan that really works.

If you’re working within a team, an approach that you might take is to organise a planning workshop, where you gather everyone together to plan the project as a group, usually by placing post-it notes on the wall. This is a much better approach. It will get you working as a team. However, the drawbacks of the post-it note approach include:

  • an over-reliance on subject matter experts
  • a lack of consistency of outcome
  • low levels of knowledge transfer
  • poor quality follow-up, and
  • problems with facilities and logistics.

So, what do you need to do to create a plan that works? Here are six key steps that will help you to do just that.

Start off with the goal

You need to be clear what the goal is so that your planning efforts are aimed at the right target. As well as the goal, spend time with your stakeholders working out what success looks like to them. This will bring your goal to life and help you to describe the target that you are trying to hit.

Next, decide which workstreams you need in order to achieve your goal

Breaking the project into workstreams is essential for grouping or segmenting similar activities. Each workstream may become a sub-project or work package in its own right, but does not have to. Each workstream though should be owned by one person who will be accountable for its delivery. For a small project that could be the same person for more than one workstream. For larger projects it is best that these are shared out between different people.

Choose key milestones for each workstream

Once you have decided on your workstreams, it’s time to decide on the milestones for each workstream. Your milestones will mark significant points on the way to your goal. Start off by working backwards from the end of the project. Make each milestone reflect the end of an activity, not the start and use plain and simple language. Make sure that the milestones reflect the delivery of something that is valuable to the business rather than to the project. Too many milestones make it difficult to see the big picture, so keep the number of milestones small, to perhaps 5-7 per workstream.

Once you have your milestones in place you have the essential elements of your high level plan. This will determine the overall shape and approach for your project. You can use this high level plan to report progress to your key stakeholders, since they are unlikely to want to know the detail. Next comes the detail.

Add work products for each milestone

Take each milestone in turn and decide what you need to do in order to achieve this milestone. Try to focus on tangible products or artefacts, rather than the work that you think you need to do. One easy way to do this is to produce a set of pre-printed cards, based on your organisation’s project or delivery methodology, where each card represents a work product or artefact. The benefit of using cards is that you get consistency when planning projects, as each project will consist of the same set of products to start off with. If a particular work product isn’t needed for your project, just set the card to one side. If you are completing a project in stages and you don’t need a number of cards for the particular stage that you are planning then again, set the cards to one side. If, on the other hand, you have a project that requires new work products just create new work product cards.

Next add in project governance

The final step is to add in the structure to your project for monitoring and control. These are points where you will want to confirm that your project is on target, the required benefits are still worth pursuing and risks are being managed. Add in the required project phases or stages that reflect your project life cycle. Also add in governance gateways, those points where you will want to obtain approval to proceed from your project steering group, along with the funding that you need to proceed.

The final step is to confirm the key dates and constraints

Start off with the key dates. Having developed a plan based on the milestones and work products you need to confirm that the proposed plan can be completed in the available time. If no target date has been set you need to decide how long it will take to deliver. You will also need to decide whether there are any key constraints that may affect your proposed plan. These may include resource constraints, time constraints, budgetary constraints or other potential bottlenecks which may hold you up. Add these constraints to your plan and review whether the objective is still achievable. If not, you will need to replan until you are satisfied that you can deliver despite the constraints.

So, to wrap up, here’s how to build up a plan logically:

  1. Start off with the end goal in mind and describe what success will look like
  2. Divide your project into workstreams of activity, where each workstream focuses on a particular aspect of the project
  3. For each workstream identify a small number of key milestones that you can use to measure progress
  4. For each milestone, identify the lower level work products or artefacts that you need to procure or produce in order to achieve the milestone
  5. Once you’ve identified the lower level work products, group the project by phase so that you can review progress periodically and assure yourself that you are on target
  6. Add in any project dependencies and constraints
  7. Add in your governance review points, where you will want to demonstrate that the project is still on target to deliver and can be given further funding.