How to create a great project plan in Excel (with template)

How do you create a good project plan fast? It’s really not difficult, and you don’t need MS Project or any other complicated tool. Let me show you how I create my project plans (I also have a template for you).

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What is a project plan?

A project plan breaks down the project goal into actionable tasks. Tasks are are distributed on the time axis considering a number of factors. One factor is the order in which work needs to be carried out. E.g. we must do A first before we can start with B. Another factor is the effort necessary to complete a task. Availability of resources is another factor we must look at when creating a project plan.

Why a good project plan should be simple

By simple I mean several things:

  • First, the project plan should be accessible with common applications like Excel. That’s why I generally avoid MS Project or similar tools. A double click on the file name and the document opens in a few seconds.
  • Second, making changes should be easy. There should be no complex dependencies to manage, and I don’t want to spend hours figuring out how to use a planning software.
  • The level of detail should not be too high. If you have a plan that is very granular, listing every small task, you will spend more time updating your plan than actually leading your project and managing your time (which is more important).

Does that mean I never use MS Project? No. I may use it for an initial plotting of the dependencies. But the actual project plan I always create in Excel. I’ll show you how.

The project plan template I’m using for $1m projects

Here is the template I use to create project plans in Excel. It is simple but also very clear and easy to use.

“Your project plan template is fantastic!” – Sandra

Use this project plan to schedule your project as Gantt chart.
My project plan template uses Excel

You can download the template here in XLS format.

The template explained

Here’s short video I recorded to walk you through the template.

Here’s what is included in the template:

Project phases

Phases help structure a project into blocks of related tasks. Usually in a project you will always have a preparation phase, an implementation phase and a closing phase.

You can use a different row color and uppercase style to highlight project phases, just as I did in the example above.

Timeline

The timeline is shown from column E further to the right. Months are broken down into weeks, meaning each column is a different week.

Task name

These are the actual things we need to do in our project. For example, there is an activity called requirement specification, where we are putting down the requirements of our project. Also the project kick-off is listed as an activity. In the example, cells showing tasks have yellow background color.

Tasks on timeline

The blue cells show the tasks on our timeline (learn how to set deadlines).

Milestones

A milestone is a goal you are working towards or a very important activity. Examples:

  • Software fully tested (a goal)
  • Project status meetings (an important activity)
  • Go-live of a new software system (an important activity/goal)
  • Getting approval for something (a goal)

Responsible

Once you have finalized your project plan, you share it with your team and the people affected by your project.

Everybody who has some responsibility in the project needs to see with one glance what they have to do. That’s what the columns B, C and D are used for. An X depicts who has to contribute for a specific activity.

How you title the columns and how many columns you use depends on your project. For a project involving IT and marketing, you would have two columns, IT and marketing.

How granular should the project plan be?

Should you list each and every activity that needs to be performed, or should you just include the big tasks? Not an easy question and it really depends on the project.

Generally I only put down major tasks and milestones. I also summarize similar tasks under one general task name.

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