So, your boss wants to see a project plan.
How do you create a good one?
Just follow the steps here. And grab my project template.
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 the plan.
Note that a “project plan”, a “project timeline” and a “project schedule” are the same thing.
Why I use Excel to create a project plan
I manage large IT projects. And I’ve never used anything but Excel. Do you want to know why? Excel is easy to use and I have full control over the process of creation.
It’s tempting to use complex software like MS Project. But especially for beginners such tools can be overwhelming. You change one value here and it automatically changes some other value there. Leading to changes you maybe didn’t want to make.
Excel allows you to draw a project plan the way you want. And anyone in your team can open an Excel-based plan. That makes sharing so much easier. There’s no need for an MS Project installation.
(If you still want to use MS Project, here’s a good tutorial)
Sample project plan
Here’s a plan you can use for any project. It also gives you an idea of how to structure a project plan.
Steps to creating a project plan
1 – Create a list of tasks (or deliverables)
Here’s the question you need to ask first: “What are all the things we need to take care of so that we will reach the project goal?”
You need to identify every task that needs to be carried out. Anything that needs to be set up, put together, developed or decided. These are also called deliverables. Figure out what these activities are, how long they take to implement, who’s gonna take care of them and how they relate to the other project activities.
Examples of tasks:
- Writing a specification
- Developing a software
- Testing the software
- Getting approval from management
How do you identify those tasks?
To understand what tasks need to be carried out, talk to everyone in your project.
Schedule 1:1 meetings with every person on your project, about 1-2 hours per session.
Give the person an overview of the project including. This is what the project is about. And these are the conditions and assumptions. It’s helpful to prepare a deck of slides for this purpose.
Ask questions to figure out details for each task. Focus on understanding the purpose of each task, how long takes to complete, and how it relates to the other project tasks.
These questions help you in composing a task list:
- “What needs to be done from your side to get the servers set up?”
- “How long do you think this will take?”
- “Do I need to involve anybody else besides you?”
- “Once you have completed the servers, can we get our software installed right away?”
2 – Understand the task dependencies
This is super important!
Make sure you have an 100% accurate understanding of the task dependencies. This means you know what must be fulfilled before a specific task can be started.
Example: You’re rolling out a new software. The software can only go live after it’s been tested successfully by the key-users. And of course end-users must have received training. What’s more: the end-user documentation must be ready so that people can look for a solution if they have questions.
In this example, the task “go-live of new software” must be scheduled after the tasks testing, end-user training and document creation.
3 – Estimate effort for each task
Talk to your experts who are going to perform the task. They can give you effort estimations.
Here’s what a developer would say:
“I need about ten days to develop the software interface”
Note that effort and duration of a task don’t have to be the same: Your developer may need ten days to complete the work. But remember he’s also got other work to do and and might only be able to work for you 3 days per week. So, instead of taking two weeks, the development work would span across an entire month!
Points to consider for scheduling work:
- Bank holidays
- Individual holidays
- Parallel projects
- Time needed for reconciliation between activities
- Company closing times
Bigger or unfamiliar tasks may also be harder to estimate. In these case, be scientific. Look at the work by breaking it down into smaller pieces.
Here’s a practical example:
Let’s say you want to change tires and you’ve never done it before.
First you would have your neighbor explain the process. This takes 10 minutes. Then you would change the first tire. Takes you 5 minutes because you are still unfamiliar with the tools. The next tire would only take you 4 minutes to change. You are getting better! And then the third and fourth tire would take you 3 and 2 minutes, respectively. The total effort: 10 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 = 24 minutes.
Finally, understand that estimations are never 100% correct. They are just good guesses. Over time you’ll become better estimating work. It depends a lot on your experience.
Make a “good enough” estimation and plan in some buffer to account for uncertainty.
4 – Create the plan
Now you create a project plan.
Take your list of tasks. Each of them with a value for the estimated effort.
Open the project plan template in Excel (download below).
To draw the plan follow these steps:
- Pick a task from your list (e.g. “software implementation”)
- Check the effort for this task (e.g. 10 days)
- Open the Outlook calendar (or any other calendar) and jump to the week the task should be scheduled at. What you want to find out is if there are any bank holidays or other days on which no work is possible. A conclusion could be: “The task takes 10 days to complete, which would be 2 weeks. Since Tuesday is a bank holiday here, I have to add one more day.”
- Next, check with the person responsible for the task if she is on holiday during that time.
- Draw a bar in your plan, with the bar’s width representing the duration of the task.
- Repeat step 1-5 until you are at the start.
The end result should look somewhat like in the image below.
Video: How to use the template
Here’s short video I recorded to walk you through the template.
You can download the template here in XLS format.
Here’s what is included in the template:
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.
The timeline is shown from column E further to the right. Months are broken down into weeks, meaning each column is a different week.
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).
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)
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.