10 Critical Steps to Include in a Project Plan

Although project plans differ from company to company, there are 10 critical elements or steps that must be included in an effective project plan.

A project plan is the culmination of meticulous planning by a project manager. It is the master document that guides how a project will run, and according to the Project Management Institute, it is “a formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” It is the plan of plans because documented within it are the project manager’s intentions for each key facet of the project.

Organizations have their own processes and protocols for what needs to be in a project plan and more generally how projects are to run, so they won't all have the elements listed here. However, project managers should consider all of ​these elements during the planning phase to avoid confusion and forced improvisation during the project execution phase.

01
Project Goals

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Project goals are defined in a project charter, but they should be included in the project plan as well. There are several ways to do this. The project plan could further explain the goals of the project, or it could include the charter as an appendix. No matter how a project manager chooses to incorporate the goals into the project plan, the important thing is to maintain a clear link between the project charter—a project’s first key document—and the project’s second key document, its project plan.

02
Project Scope

Like project goals, ​the scope is defined in the charter. However, a project manager should further refine the scope in the project plan. For example, a project to automate a manual process would need to define the scope by defining where that process begins and ends.

By defining the scope, the project manager can begin to show what the project's goal or finished product will look like at the end. If the scope isn't defined, it can get expanded throughout the project and lead to cost overruns and missed deadlines.

For example, if you're leading a marketing team to create a brochure for a company's product line, how many pages will it be? What are some examples of how the finished product might look? For some team members, a brochure might mean two pages while for others, it might mean ten pages. Defining the scope can get the entire team on the same page at the onset.

03
Milestones and Major Deliverables

The key achievements for a project are called milestones. The key work products are called major deliverables. They represent the big components of work on a project. A project plan should identify these items, define them, and set deadlines for their completion.

If an organization undertakes a project to develop new software, major deliverables could be the final list of business requirements and how to implement them. Following those, the project could have milestones for design completion, system testing, user acceptance testing, and the software rollout date. These milestones have work products associated with them, but they are more about the processes than the products themselves.

Milestone and major deliverable deadlines do not have to be exact dates, but the more precise, the better. Precise dates help project managers break down work structures more accurately.

In this stage of the plan, you'll be creating milestones so that you can take large or high-level deliverables and break them down into small deliverables, which can be outlined in the next step.   

04
Work Breakdown Structure

A work breakdown structure, or WBS, deconstructs the milestones and major deliverables in a project into smaller chunks so one person can be assigned responsibility for each chunk. In developing the work breakdown structure, the project manager considers many factors such as the strengths and weaknesses of project team members, the interdependencies among tasks, available resources, and the overall project deadline.

Project managers are ultimately responsible for the success of the project, but they cannot do the work alone. The WBS is a tool the project manager uses to ensure accountability on the project because it tells the project sponsor, project team members, and stakeholders who are responsible for what. If the project manager is concerned about a task, she knows exactly who to meet with regarding that concern.

05
Budget

A project’s budget shows how much money is allocated to complete the project. The project manager is responsible for dispersing these resources appropriately. For a project that has vendors, the project manager ensures deliverables are completed according to contract terms, paying particular attention to quality. Some project budgets link to the human resources plan.

It's important to establish the cost for each milestone and deliverable by looking at how much time and labor cost that'll be involved to complete the tasks. The cost of the project will be tied to how long the project takes, which goes back to the scope of the project. The scope, milestones, tasks, and budget have to be aligned and realistic. 

06
Human Resources Plan

The human resources plan shows how the project will be staffed. It sometimes is known as the staffing plan. This plan defines who will be on the project team and how much of a time commitment each person is expected to make. In developing this plan, the project manager negotiates with team members and their supervisors on how much time each team member can devote to the project. If additional staff is needed to consult on the project but are is part of the project team, that also is documented in the staffing plan. Again, appropriate supervisors are consulted.

07
Risk Management Plan

Many things can go wrong on a project. While every possible disaster or minor hiccup is unforeseeable, many can be predicted. In the risk management plan, the project manager identifies risks to the project, the likelihood those risks will happen, and strategies to mitigate those risks. The project manager seeks input from the project sponsor, project team, stakeholders, and internal experts.

Mitigation strategies are put into place for risks that are likely to occur or have high costs associated with them. Risks that are unlikely to occur and ones that have low costs are noted in the plan; however, they may not have mitigation strategies.

08
Communications Plan

A communications plan outlines how a project will be communicated to various audiences. Much like the work breakdown structure, a communications plan assigns responsibility for completing each component to a project team member.

In this step, it's important to outline how issues will be communicated and resolved within the team and how often communication will be done to the team and the stakeholders or the boss. 

Each message has an intended audience. A communications plan helps project managers ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

09
Stakeholder Management Plan

A stakeholder management plan identifies how stakeholders will be used in the project. Sometimes stakeholders only need to receive information. That can be taken care of in the communications plan. If more is needed from stakeholders, a stakeholder management plan outlines how it will be obtained.

10
Change Management Plan

A change management plan lays out a framework for making changes to the project. Project managers tend to want to avoid changes to the project, but they sometimes are unavoidable. The change management plan provides protocols and processes for making changes. It is critical for accountability and transparency that project sponsors, project managers, and project team members follow the change management plan.