Project Management Guide

How to Plan a Project

In this section, we’ll take a close look at starting and planning a project. We’ll show you how to plan a project from start to finish, gather the information you need, choose the right team, select the appropriate methodology, and get approval from project stakeholders.

What is a project plan?

A project plan is a blueprint of a project, meticulously outlining the who, what, when, and how of bringing a project from concept to completion. It is a formal document that defines the project scope, objectives, resources, and all the necessary steps to achieve the project’s goals. This comprehensive guide serves not only as a roadmap for project execution but also as a tool for communication among stakeholders, ensuring everyone involved has a clear understanding of their roles, responsibilities, and the project timeline.

Why is project planning important?

Project planning is an indispensable phase within the entire project cycle, which typically includes initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure. Project planning is where the project’s vision is transformed into a structured action plan, detailing every task, resource, and timeline needed to achieve the project goals.Effective planning serves as the project’s backbone, helping managers and teams to anticipate potential challenges and devise solutions proactively. With a well-prepared project plan, you can:

  • Ensure that every member understands their role, responsibilities, and the expectations placed upon them.
  • Facilitate better decision-making, as stakeholders have a comprehensive overview of the project, its scope, and its constraints.
  • Anticipate and mitigate risks by identifying potential challenges and uncertainties early on and planning appropriate strategies to address them.
  • Optimize resource allocation, ensuring that resources are utilized efficiently throughout the project, from manpower to materials and budget.
  • Maintain project scope, preventing scope creep by clearly defining project boundaries and deliverables from the outset.

Key elements of project planning

A project plan outlines the project’s scope, objectives, and the path to achieve them, ensuring all stakeholders are aligned and informed. Below are the key elements that constitute an effective project plan:

  • Project overview

A project overview is a high-level summary of the project, including its purpose, objectives, and importance. It sets the stage for understanding the project’s goals and the value it aims to deliver.

  • Scope and deliverables

Defining the project scope and specific deliverables is critical. This includes detailed descriptions of the project’s outputs and the boundaries of what the project will and will not cover, preventing scope creep and ensuring clarity among team members.

  • Timeline and milestones

A detailed timeline, including milestones, is essential for tracking progress. This part of the plan outlines the project schedule, key deliverables, and deadlines, offering a clear view of the project’s timeline and significant checkpoints.

  • Roles and responsibilities

Clear delineation of team roles and responsibilities ensures that each team member knows their specific duties. This clarity promotes accountability and efficient collaboration within the project team.

  • Budget and resources

An itemized budget detailing expected costs and resource allocation is a must-have. It includes information on labor, materials, equipment, and any other resources needed, ensuring the project stays within financial limits.

  • Risk management plan

Identifying potential risks and their mitigation strategies is crucial for project resilience. This section assesses possible challenges and uncertainties, outlining contingency plans to address these issues should they arise.

  • Communication plan

Effective communication strategies are outlined in this component, specifying the methods and frequency of communication among project stakeholders. It ensures everyone remains informed and engaged throughout the project lifecycle.

  • Quality management

This element describes the standards and criteria for project deliverables and the processes to ensure these standards are met. It underscores the commitment to quality and customer satisfaction.

  • Change management plan

Given the dynamic nature of projects, a plan for managing changes is necessary. This includes procedures for handling scope alterations, budget adjustments, and any other modifications, ensuring controlled and documented changes.

  • Approval process

Finally, defining the process for obtaining project approvals, including key decision points and stakeholders responsible for those approvals, is essential. It provides a clear path for moving the project forward at critical stages.

How to plan: 7 project planning steps

Whether you’re a seasoned project manager or tackling your first project, understanding how to plan a project systematically is essential. This guide breaks down how to plan a project into seven manageable project planning steps, designed to provide you with a clear, actionable roadmap. By following these steps, you’ll be equipped to lay a solid foundation for your project, streamline your workflow, ensure team alignment, and significantly increase your chances of achieving your project goals.

Preparing the team – Step 1

Identify the areas touched by the project and invite people to the planning meeting who represent those areas. These will not be individuals who will be directly working on the project, but they manage the departments that will. For example, if a publisher is planning a project for a book launch, think about who needs to be informed: the marketing team, the events team, the printing house, the media representatives, etc. This is important because these are the people who will know what work their respective departments will need to complete. They will need to know that you will be requiring resources from them to complete the project.

Identify the project planning team – Step 2

Though preparation of the planning team starts with department heads, they don’t continue down the path of helping to plan the project. The project planning team is a different group of people. The goal of the planning team is to help the project manager understand how each section of the project will break down.Invite people who are currently in the task roles that you will require for the project. For example, the sales manager is only useful if they are also doing sales; otherwise, you should opt for a sales rep.When you learn how to plan a project, you need to understand WBS. As soon as you’ve identified the project planning team, you need to hold a meeting to create the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). This is a representation of the work of the project – it’s not your schedule, but you will use the information gathered here to create your schedule.

Creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) – Step 3

One of the advantages of creating the WBS is its brainstorming, nonlinear approach. By using this method, new ideas will pop into your mind, or the team’s mind, and you’ll have a complete understanding of the work.

  1. Begin the meeting with an explanation of the scope and objective of the meeting.
  2. Ask them to sit for 10 minutes and write all the different things they need to do on sticky notes. Have them think in terms of noun/verb formats, e.g. create a document, build a prototype, or test a program. Doing the first round of brainstorming individually allows them to think from their expertise.
  3. Then, ask them to place the notes on a blank wall.
  4. Review what is on the wall and add to it. If you have a team, you can ask them to go up as a group and review the information and add notes where they think it’s needed.
  5. Have your team organize the work by what they think is logical. You’ll end up with clusters of work on the wall.

At this point, you can end the project planning meeting. As the project manager, you’ll want to validate that the groupings make sense to you since you have to manage the schedule.Work Breakdown Structure Your WBS may look different, but here’s the language around the levels.

  • The first level is usually the project name.
  • The second level is usually main phases.

Any box without a sub box is a work package. That means someone is doing the work, all of the work packages add up to the phases.

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Review the WBS

A scope statement is a brief summary of what the intended outcome of the project is. Example: Developing a software based system to track time and budget for clients. When you compare the WBS to the scope, you will likely find new opportunities within the project which you need to take to the sponsor for approval. Sometimes at this stage projects have grown so big and complicated that they are not worth doing. You want to make sure that everything makes sense and will be worth the investment. The scope statement is not the only thing your should review the WBS against. You also need to review it against the planned schedule and the critical path. Doing this will help you set more realistic expectations for your stakeholders as to when the project can be completed.

Estimating time – Step 4

Accurately estimating time is one of the hardest things to do when planning your project. Time estimates help determine a large portion of the budget. There are two variable to take into consideration: Effort & Duration. Effort is what time the work would take if there were no interruptions and no other priorities. If you have to write an email it might take 5 minutes of effort. But if someone calls in the middle of it, then you have to go to a meeting, and then someone needs a decision...This means that the duration of writing the email could be 3 hours or all day. Think about how you estimate your own work. Do you underestimate? Overestimate? Do you come in pretty close? The truth is, you will never achieve 100% accuracy. No matter how good the plan is, things will happen along the way. You are trying to find the best estimate, not a guarantee.

Why care about the hours?

Some project managers tend to dismiss the importance of accurate time estimates. They think “hey, there’s no way I can get it right, so why bother?”, whereas others think “instead of wasting time creating estimates, I might as well get started on the project and finish it that much quicker.” Based on our experience, both of these approaches are wrong and they ignore the main benefits of proper time estimation:

  1. If you’re dealing with external clients, accurate estimation helps with inspiring confidence and the likelihood of repeat business.
  2. When you have to bill by the hour, accurate time estimates make it easier for you to account for each hour you or your team spent working on the project, as it will show you what kind of a final figure to expect and give you the opportunity to investigate the discrepancy.
  3. Better time estimation will also allow you to be more efficient in your projects: if you can more accurately judge how long each task is going to take, you can setup your structure accordingly to minimize inefficiencies. No more team members idly twiddling their thumbs, or being overwhelmed by too much to do at once!

The benefits don’t end here either. There are many more, like the positive impression people will have of you when your estimates, even for complicated and lengthy projects, prove to be right time and time again. Or, the appreciation your team will have for your ability to assign them only as much work as they can realistically handle. Limit the length of your estimatesOne pitfall that we see time and time again is the adoption of time slots that are way too big to be precise enough. “Create marketing plan: 24 hours” is not an acceptable time budgeting practice. True, you can probably be this general and still use it for payroll, but you can’t really gain any actionable insight from such a vague task description. If you were to instead break that down as:

  • Identify marketing goals for the year: 3 hours
  • Determine the key segments to be targeted: 4 hours
  • Create the 4 P’s of the marketing mix (Price, product, promotion, and place): 4 hours
  • Etc…

You would have a much easier time using the same time blocks to estimate what commitment may be required for similar tasks in the future.

Create a project schedule – Step 5

Creating the schedule involves talking to your team members, getting their ideas on what work needs to be done first, how long it will take them and asking again if there is anything missing. Your best approach here is to talk to the people who will do the work since they know the most about how long it will take. There are a lot of techniques to gather an estimate of the time it takes to do a project task, but you only need to know enough about it to feel confident that the timeline is accurate.

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Resource Planning

The question that remains before you schedule your project, is how will you get the right team members to be available for the exact timeline that you need? Birdview has a built-in resource loading simulator. This feature allows you to:

  • Put together a project team based on skills and availability
  • Check resource availability
  • Ensure that there are no conflicts with existing project schedules before scheduling your new project

Gantt Charts

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Validate the schedule

When you are planning a project, you will put all the information into a schedule and will see something like the graphic below. It’s called a Gantt chart. The bars are timelines for individual tasks; the linking lines show logical order called dependencies. After reviewing the information, it’s time to confirm any new scope items with your Sponsor to make sure everything is good to go.Gantt Charts

There is one more step of good project planning before you get the sponsor to sign off on the project. You need to take it back to the team and make sure you’ve captured what they meant when they gave you the information. It’s still surprising to me that when people see the whole plan put together, there’s usually a small (or sometimes large) gap left between their assumptions. For example, the sales team might have assumed that training would take place in a one-hour meeting on Monday. Based on that assumption, they estimated that they would be ready to start selling by Tuesday afternoon at the latest. However, when the training team looked at the amount of information that needed to be delivered, they estimated three one-hour training sessions over three days. If the training starts on Monday, it will be Thursday before sales can start.By returning the plan to the team, you can capture most of the assumption gaps. I like to do this with the whole team if possible. In our example, if training and salespeople are in the same room when they notice the gap, they can find a resolution to the problem, and you don’t have to head back into a project planning session.

Step 6: Get sponsor approval

When you have the project scheduled, the next step is to go back to your sponsor and get them to sign off on the plan. Once they do that, you are ready to execute.

The RACI Matrix

RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. A RACI matrix is a chart that outlines the roles of each contributor to a particular task or deliverable. This chart can be useful because it is very clear on what is expected from everyone involved. For example, a writer is responsible for writing a blog post, while the marketing manager is accountable for it. To write the post, the writer consults with the Sales team, and the VP of Marketing would like to be informed. This chart is useful for cross-departmental activities in large organizations.

The RACI Matrix

Step 7: Risk Management

The one thing we know for sure in life is that things can and will go wrong. Having this information embedded in our DNA would make it irresponsible to set up a contingency plan.Projects are no different; no matter how to plan a project, you can rarely get a perfect execution and outcome. Fortunately, there are things we can do about it. Risk management is an art and a science in the world of project planning because to be able to foresee problems, you need to have the insight and know when to react. Using project management software is a great risk mitigation tactic to start with because after you set up a project the way you anticipate, you’ll be able to see the bigger picture and data points like dependencies, the critical path, budget, resources etc. Understanding the project planning steps and applying them effectively is essential for the success of any project. Each step in project planning lays the groundwork for the next, creating a clear path from the project’s inception to its completion.

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What tools can you use to plan a project?

Selecting the right tools is crucial for ensuring your project’s planning phase is both effective and efficient. The variety of options ranges from basic spreadsheets to full-featured project management software, each catering to projects of different sizes, complexities, and industry-specific needs.


Spreadsheets, such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, stand as the backbone of project planning for many. Their flexibility allows for crafting customized timelines, budget estimations, and resource allocations. Despite lacking the advanced functionalities found in specialized project management applications, spreadsheets offer a familiar and accessible starting point for smaller projects or those constrained by budget limitations.

Dedicated planning software

When projects demand a more refined toolset, dedicated project planning software steps in. These platforms are built with project management at their core, featuring capabilities like Gantt charts for detailed timeline visualization, task dependencies, and tracking of progress. Such software suits projects that navigate complex schedules and interdependent tasks, offering a more granular project planning approach.

Comprehensive project management platforms

Platforms, such as Birdview, offer an all-in-one solution for project management, supporting a project through every phase of its lifecycle–from initiation to final delivery. Comprehensive project management platforms include planning features with resource management, time tracking, and team collaboration functionalities, presenting a unified system for overseeing projects regardless of their scale or complexity. These software are particularly beneficial for organizations aiming to consolidate their project management tools into a single, cohesive environment.

Project planning varies significantly across different industries due to their unique requirements, regulatory standards, and specific challenges. Understanding what is mandatory in the planning process for each industry is crucial to tailoring your approach effectively. Here’s a breakdown of project planning essentials across five key industries:

Project planning in Business Consulting

In Business Consulting, the project planning process is highly client-centric and adaptable. Projects often involve organizational change, strategy development, or process optimization. Key elements include:

  • Stakeholder analysis

Understanding client needs, expectations, and the project’s impact on various stakeholders is crucial.

  • Risk and opportunity assessment

Given the strategic nature of consulting projects, identifying potential risks and opportunities early in the project planning stage is essential for delivering value.

  • Change management plans

Since these projects typically aim to alter existing business practices, planning for effective change management is critical.

Project planning in Engineering

Engineering projects demand a high level of precision and technical detail. These projects often involve designing, testing, and implementing solutions or constructing physical structures. Distinct requirements include:

  • Technical specifications

Detailed engineering drawings and specifications are fundamental to the planning process.

  • Compliance and safety standards

Adhering to industry-specific safety and regulatory standards is mandatory.

  • Resource allocation

Engineering projects require meticulous planning of resources, including materials, machinery, and specialized labor.

Project planning in the IT industry

In the IT industry, projects range from software development to infrastructure setup and cybersecurity implementations. IT project planning nuances involve:

  • Agile methodology

Many IT projects benefit from agile planning processes, where the project scope and solutions evolve through collaborative efforts of self-organizing and cross-functional teams.

  • Technology stack selection

Deciding on the technology stack is crucial early in the planning phase to ensure project feasibility and sustainability.

  • Security protocols

With the increasing importance of data security, integrating security measures into the project plan is non-negotiable.

Project planning in Civil Engineering

Civil Engineering projects encompass the design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and buildings. Key project planning elements include:

  • Environmental impact assessments

Understanding and planning for the environmental impact of projects is essential.

  • Permit and zoning requirements

Securing the necessary permits and ensuring compliance with local zoning laws are critical steps in the project planning phase.

  • Material and labor logistics

Detailed logistics planning for materials and labor is crucial due to the scale and complexity of civil engineering projects.

Project planning in Architecture

For Architecture projects, the planning process is deeply intertwined with design and aesthetics, alongside functionality and sustainability. Unique aspects include:

  • Site analysis

A comprehensive analysis of the project site, considering factors like climate, terrain, and context, is essential.

  • Regulatory compliance

Adhering to building codes and architectural standards is a critical part of the planning process.

  • Stakeholder collaboration

Engaging with clients, contractors, and regulatory bodies early and throughout the planning and design process is key to ensuring that the project meets all expectations and requirements.While project planning shares some common ground across industries, such as the need for clear objectives and risk management, the specifics can vary greatly. Tailoring the planning process to address the unique challenges and requirements of each industry ensures that projects are not only compliant but also set up for success from the start.

To ease the creation of a project management plan, we’ve compiled a collection of project planning templates across various professional service industries. These templates serve as comprehensive blueprints, detailing a series of steps and subtasks designed to steer any project to completion. Available for customization, these resources can be downloaded or accessed through Birdview, allowing for adjustments to fit the unique needs of your project.

Project plan example: IT services – website development

As an example, let’s take a look at a project plan for developing a new website for a small business in the IT services industry. This project plan will be outlined in a table format, providing a clear and structured overview of the entire process from start to finish. This format helps to visualize the project’s scope, tasks, responsibilities, timelines, and required resources.

Objectives Tasks Roles and Responsibilities Timeline Tools
Develop a user-friendly website to increase online presence and customer engagement. Conduct market research to understand target audience preferences. Project Manager: Oversee the project and ensure milestones are met. Market Research Analyst: Gather and analyze market data. Week 1-2 Market research tools and access to industry reports.
Create website design prototypes. Web Designer: Design and iterate website prototypes based on research findings and client feedback. Week 3-4 Design software (e.g., Adobe XD, Sketch), hardware.
Develop a website based on the finalized design. Web Developers: Code the website’s frontend and backend. QA Engineers: Test the website for bugs. Week 5-8 Development tools (e.g., Visual Studio Code), web hosting, domain.
Implement SEO strategies to enhance online visibility. SEO Specialist: Optimize website content and structure for search engines. Week 9 SEO tools (e.g., SEMrush, Google Analytics).
Launch the website and monitor its performance. IT Support Team: Handle technical issues. Digital Marketing Team: Monitor website analytics and user feedback. Week 10 Web analytics tools, customer feedback tools.


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