What are the elements of a project plan?

I'm new to this management role and have been asked to plan the project we're working on. What are the elements of a project plan?

Project planning is not an exact science, and project plans vary greatly depending upon what is being developed and the project scope. Furthermore, project plan terms like scope statement, project charter, and statement of work are not rigorously standardized and often have overlap or differing interpretations. One of the primary considerations should always be to have enough information, but no more. Demanding paperwork and reports for the simple sake of having things documented serves no useful purpose, and can drive frustrated team members to view project management as nothing but busywork and bureaucracy. At the other end of the spectrum, glossing over necessary tools and planning to "get to the real work" can result in unnecessary and expensive rework and customer frustration, not to mention rampant episodes of "I told you so" drama. Finding the right balance is as much art as science. The best starting point is to view planning documents primarily as thinking tools—if the documentation indicates that you've thought things through thoroughly and have a plan, it's probably sufficient. If it requires the reader to fill in lots of blanks that are known to the PM but not to any of the team members, there is probably work left to do.

Here's a checklist of what should be included in nearly all project plans:

  • The business case: a reference to or summary of information from the business case (sometimes called a project charter) is usually included, describing the product or service and how it fits into the organization's strategic plan
  • A description of project justification, deliverables, and objectives (scope statement—see, for example, our vision document template)
  • The name of the project manager
  • The project's organizational strategy and management strategy—what is the life cycle, what major activities (reviews, tests, and so on) gate the life cycle phases, etc.
  • A roster of required team members and their functional expertise (identified by name when possible)
  • A manageable breakdown of the total work that will be done during the project, often in the form of a Work Breakdown Structure
  • Cost estimates, start dates, and responsibility assignments of the work breakdown
  • Performance level baselines for schedule and cost (maintained for comparison, not as part of the dynamic plan)
  • Major milestone descriptions and dates
  • Key risks, including constraints (like cost or time-to-market) and assumptions, and planned responses for each
  • Plans for managing product requirements, for schedule management, and for project issue management (scope management)
  • Open issues and pending decisions (punch list)

A key to success in good project planning is to always think about and say something about each one of these checklist areas (and others that are applicable), regardless of the size of the project, the industry involved, and the product or service being produced. Clearly, the scale of the plan elements will differ, depending on project scope. For example, if you are planning a birthday party, the work breakdown may be a short, descriptive list—if you are designing an aircraft, the work breakdown may be a binder full of WBS diagrams. But regardless of project or program scale, if you devote some attention to each checklist area, write down something about it, and present that written plan to stakeholders and team members, you will lower the risk of a fundamental misunderstanding about the project goals, cost, and time that could surface later and wreck havoc with your schedule, budget, or product fitness for use.

Our Generic Project Plan Document serves as a good middle ground project plan. This template will help you create an umbrella project plan document that will collect an overall summary of the plan in one place. For smaller projects, you may want to review our Small Project Plan Example instead, which demonstrates how to compile all the necessary information without burying yourself in bureaucratic paperwork. (See also our case study on Adapting PM Techniques and Templates to a Mini-Project.

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