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6 steps to a successful project planning process

By: Leanne Armstrong


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Whether you’re working alone or as part of a group, you need a proper plan to take your project from concept to closure. The project planning process is not only the most important stage in the project management life cycle, it’s the key to running your project like a well-oiled machine.

By following established project planning steps, you can achieve your goals on time, on budget, and with fewer headaches along the way. So if you’re ready to chart your course to project planning success, we’re here to guide you through the process.

Project Planning 101

Project plans make it easier to:

  • uncover the most efficient and cost-effective course of action,
  • establish realistic milestones and deadlines, and
  • define what a successful outcome looks like

Why use a project planning process?

Before we dive in, it’s worth revisiting just how critical the project planning process is to the success of your venture. Creating a project plan and a project charter to clarify and build out your goals will, among other things, make it easier to:

  • uncover the most efficient and cost-effective course of action,
  • establish realistic milestones and deadlines, and
  • define what a successful outcome looks like

Though specific activities will vary depending on the size and purpose of your mission, the project planning process is based on a few fundamental steps designed to lay out the details for any project, start to finish.

Remember, the projects most likely to suffer from scope creep and derailment are the ones that lack solid planning.

To keep your project running smoothly, you should be prepared to invest as much time as it takes to sort out exactly what you and your team need to achieve, the processes you’ll use, and the plan that will bring it all together.

6 basic project planning steps

The end result of every project planning process is a document or digital layout known as a project plan. Not only does this plan contain all the tasks and workflows required to reach your objectives, it will often include subsidiary plans for everything from budgeting to quality control.

To set your plan up for success, you should start by meeting with your manager, project sponsor, or key stakeholders to hammer out:

  • the overall scope of your project, and
  • the specific deliverables you’ll be expected to provide

Clarifying these parameters upfront is paramount before you prepare the work breakdown structure for your project. Once you’re comfortable, you and your team can move on to the basic project planning steps below.

1. Create a schedule

To keep everyone involved on track and in scope, you’ll need to create a project schedule that:

  • prioritizes established goals,
  • sequentially lists out the tasks required to achieve each one, and
  • break those tasks down into sub-tasks and deadlines

Pro Tip: One of the best ways to keep all the information associated with your project intact, up-to-date, and accessible by everyone is with the help of a powerful planning tool like MindManager.

2. Line up your resources

Identifying and securing project resources in advance is essential for preventing missed deadlines. Those resources may include:

  • specialized materials, equipment, or knowledge assets,
  • specific locations (your company’s conference room, for example),
  • financing, and
  • skilled personnel

Your aim should be to assign a team member and/or resource to each project task.

Pro Tip: You may need a separate plan for procuring resources that aren’t available in-house from third-party vendors, suppliers, or contractors.

3. Lay out a budget

All resources associated with your project – both human, and otherwise – are likely to have a cost attached to them. Your budget should break these amounts down in detail and project them through project completion.

4. Plan for quality

It’s important to establish quality criteria and targets so you’ll always know where your project stands relative to your goals. Consider using metrics to track and rank key deliverables, and having management sign off on each one.

Pro Tip: You may want to take advantage of project management software that makes it easy to view, update, and amend the status of time-critical tasks as needed.

5. Manage risk

Few projects are risk-free – even if the biggest threat is the possibility of a team member falling ill. Make sure you have a risk management plan in place to assess potential hurdles, and to provide contingency strategies to offset them.

6. Communicate your plan

You’ll need to design a communication strategy that keeps team members in the loop, and management and stakeholders up to date on your progress. Once your project plan has been mapped out in detail, it should be presented to everyone involved so oversights can be addressed and any changes can be approved before the plan is put into action.

Project plan examples for individuals and teams

Great planning – the kind that comes from having all your tools, systems, and resources in place – leads to great results, no matter how simple or complex your project.

Here are a few project plan examples that demonstrate why the project planning process is so valuable – whether yours is a solo or team-driven venture.

Example 1 – Planning lessons or courses

Information overload can be a challenge for anyone planning classroom or educational projects. Whether you’re a fulltime teacher or part time instructor, you can use the project planning process to:

  • break lesson plan topics out into related subject matter,
  • manipulate information and resources into a structured teaching plan, and
  • embed links and files containing lecture notes, research articles, lesson schedules, and more

Mind mapping project software is a great way to prune, organize, and present information in a way that’s easy to share with students and colleagues.

Example 2 – Writing a book or web content

Collecting and conveying your ideas, knowledge, or expertise through a book, manual, or online content is time-consuming at best. At worst, it can be a process littered with missed deadlines.

Planning is the most critical component of any writing endeavor – and the only way to keep your project on track. The project planning process lets you get your ideas down visually, so you can:

  • prioritize them,
  • build off them, and
  • transform them into specific tasks and timelines

Creating a project plan for your book also helps offset risk by making it easy to view and measure your progress against deadlines, while letting you pad out the timelines associated with submission dates.

Example 3 – Recruiting or onboarding projects

Getting everyone – from the top floor down – on the same page before your hiring project begins means you’ll be more likely to gain the time and resources you need to meet your deliverables.

Developing a recruitment or onboarding process works best, for example, when:

  • it’s documented as a step-by-step procedure, and
  • related materials are kept in one place and made accessible to everyone involved

To accomplish this, some of the most successful onboarding programs use mind maps to inform the project planning process. Not only does this keep individual team members in the loop, it encourages the team alignment that’s so crucial to productivity.

Example 4 – Spearheading a new marketing initiative

In today’s data-driven landscape, we can get so busy collecting information, we don’t always make the time to apply it. Fortunately, success metrics are an integral part of proper project planning.

By following the basic project planning steps, you and your team can avoid getting so caught up in the busy-ness of assigning sales tasks and creating advertising resources that you neglect to measure their effect on your goals.

Taking advantage of flexible, process-based software makes it easy to build KPIs like conversion rates, ROI, and funnel analytics right into your marketing project plan.

No matter the size, scope, or nature of your project, it’s best to resist the urge to rush through the planning process.

Like most things that are worth doing, creating a constructive project plan takes time. It’s also part of a dynamic process. Your plan is meant to guide your project – not restrict it. So be prepared to review, alter, and get changes approved at regular intervals as you move through the project planning process.

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