When should you develop a project management plan?

If you are trying to figure out what documents you should prepare for your next project, you have probably seen a document being mentioned called ‘Project Management Plan’.

It is regarded as one of the must-have documents by the PMI (Project Management Institute), so do you absolutely need to create this document even for a smaller project? 🤔 Well, hold on.

Producing more documentation isn’t good per se, unless the extra document helps you maintain a better overview over activities and ensures everybody is on the same page, and not having the document would result in chaos.

So what about the project management plan? When should you develop one and when can you spare yourself the added effort and go with its smaller brother – the project charter – to document the key aspects of your project? This is what I’ll answer in this article.

The Project Management Plan

The Project Management Plan is a LOONG Word file 📄. It is also the document where you describe in detail how you intend to manage the project in order to achieve the set goal. Besides that, the PM plan also contains sections outlining the scope, cost, team setup, identified risks and assumptions as well as other parameters of the project.

The typical structure of a project management plan is like this:

  • Project Overview
  • Scope
  • Out of Scope
  • Assumptions
  • Responsibilities
  • Client responsibilities
  • Vendor responsibilities
  • Project methodology / phases
  • Budget
  • Risks
  • WBS
  • Acceptance criteria 
  • … 

+ more sections 🙂

When should you develop a Project Management Plan

A project management plan provides a very detailed “action plan” for a project. It goes much deeper than a Project Charter, which does cover the same points but stays more on a high-level, for example just mentioning risks but not necessarily describing how these risks are going to be addressed – which a project management plan does.

This level of detail provided by a project management plan can be a huge benefit in the following cases:

1) It is a large project in an area the team does not have much experience in

I know ‘large’ is a subjective measure, but in terms of size, think of projects worth millions of dollars. These could be capital intensive projects such as digital transformation projects, R&D projects or construction projects. Project teams are often huge and there may be hundreds of stakeholders involved. On top of that, suppliers and contractors may be brought in from outside to provide services or components used in the process.

It’s just a very messy environment, and therefore you want to have that single document (the project management plan) that you can point people to when they want to know about a particular aspect of the project, let’s say when certain activities are planned, who their contact person for a particular component is and in what format they are supposed to deliver their weekly status update in. It’s all explained in the project management plan!

There is also the unfamiliarity factor of such large projects that justifies developing a detailed project management plan: Has the project team performed a similar project already 100x before or is the team embarking on new territory? Very often, the team is faced with a completely new subject matter, and thus it doesn’t have any data points from similar projects that can be used for the planning.

What’s more, the team doesn’t have that intuitive understanding to the project topic where all players know by heart when they need to step in and what is expected from them. Because the project is in unfamiliar territory, the Project Manager needs to detail every step in advance and specify at the outset when and how each team member and stakeholder group is going to be involved.

Under these circumstances of a project with unfamiliar area, a project management plan is not optional, but it is a must-have, because it provides the detailed playbook that is needed to orchestrate all activities properly.

2) The project involves large distributed teams located in different timezones

In multinational organizations, projects are often carried out by large distributed teams with people spread across several continents.

For example, the customer may be based in Germany, the Sales team may be located in Ireland, the professional services unit is based in the France and supporting the project from there, the development work is done by experts from India, and occasionally a PhD from the California-based research center may be called in to assist the development team with solving the most gnarly software bugs.

Such projects require a huge amount of coordination and facilitation, because communication and alignment does not happen organically between team members – as when they are based in the same building or able to meet in the cafeteria to discuss things. On top of that, different time zones and different cultural backgrounds are making effective alignment and collaboration really difficult.

For such projects with team members spread across several continents, you should also develop a project management plan. If the plan follows a standardized format that people have seen before, your team members can quickly find the necessary information about the project and their responsibilities inside the document (you can add links to documents such as Risk logs or budget overview). It will also be much easier for new team members to familiarize themselves with the project, because the project management plan has that clear structure with dedicated sections covering every aspect of the project.

I hope this short article has given you a good idea of when to develop a Project Management Plan, and when you don’t need to create one and instead just set up a Project Charter. For most smaller to midsize projects, I’d say a Project Charter is perfectly enough.

Best wishes,


  • Adrian Neumeyer

    Hi! I’m Adrian, founder of Tactical Project Manager and Ex-Project Manager with over ten years of experience in project management. Led large-scale IT implementations and business projects. I started Tactical Project Manager to offer you a straightforward and pragmatic approach to project management, enabling you to lead any project with confidence.