What Every PM Should Know About Project Plans

A unified project planning model focuses on objectives, doesn’t get bogged down in details

How do you describe a project plan to someone who is new to project management? Ask a dozen practicing project managers (PMs) this question and they will each give you a different definition based on their unique analytical approaches to project work.

With so many differing philosophies, a unified definition of a project plan is necessary. A distinction must also be made between the outputs of project planning and the project plan itself, the significance of which will allow projects of all types to be described at a high level and in a common language.

A unified model for project plans helps PMs communicate strategy and objectives to stakeholders by separating the big picture from the minutiae. Instead of getting bogged down by details, this model allows more discussion to take place at a strategic level.

This unified approach may be viewed as a disruption at first—though don’t confuse a disruption as a disadvantage. A new process always interrupts a PM’s or an organization’s routine. That isn’t a reason to not pursue it. In this case, a unified model for describing project plans requires PMs to develop a more holistic view of their projects and how they communicate with stakeholders.

What is a project plan?

Plans of all kinds—from vacations to construction projects—are predictions. Plans relate to the efforts that will be made to achieve future outcomes. They are forecasts of the effort and events that are required to achieve the desired outcomes, given in terms of what needs to be done, by whom, when and how.

Plans vary from one another in the types of activities involved and the degree of detail included in the analysis. They also vary in the uncertainty of the predictions of outcomes, because of the skill and knowledge of the analysts and the complexity of achieving the outcomes of the plan.

A project’s plan is its execution strategy. The plan is the documented description of a chosen execution strategy for the project, written in terms of the work that will be done, how, when and at what cost.

What is planning?

Planning is the act of analysis and prediction. It is through planning that an execution strategy is developed.

The term planning refers to the activities and efforts undertaken by the PM and project team that lead up to the development of an execution strategy for the project. Planning is the act of developing and maintaining a strategy for executing a project.

What are the objectives of planning?

The objective of planning is the development of an execution strategy that balances the following:

  • Scope: All of the work required to fulfill the stakeholders’ expectations
  • Time: The schedule for meeting stakeholders’ expectations
  • Cost: The resources that will be consumed to complete the work (i.e. money)
  • Risk: The uncertainty associated with predicting future outcomes relating to the scope, time and cost

Planning produces plans or planning documents of various sorts, such as schedule diagrams, workflow studies, cost breakdowns, and spreadsheets of resource utilization, to name a few of the possibilities.

What is the outcome of planning?

The result is an execution strategy that is supported by planning documents.

It is through planning that confidence is developed in the predictions contained in a project’s plan. The skill, expertise and rigor of analysis determine the uncertainty (risk) that remains with regards to the plan’s predicted outcomes.

Why is there confusion about what a project plan is?

The reason there is confusion about what constitutes a project plan is because there is confusion between the act of planning and the outcome of planning. Planning is the act. The plan is the outcome.

When asked what a project plan is, the answer should be: “A project plan is an execution strategy that balances the constraints imposed on a project.”

One-page project plan

Project plans can all be described using the same terminology. Below is an illustration of the elements of a plan: scope, time, cost and risk. This one-page project plan summarizes the important planning considerations in an easily understood format.

The project plan above is intended to fit on one page.

A one-page project plan summarizes a project’s execution strategy in the context of the balance that has been achieved between constraints. Its simplicity greatly enhances understanding of the project’s fundamental strategy and streamlines communications with stakeholders.

A unified approach keeps the focus on the big picture

A project plan can be one of two things: either a jumble of various planning documents or a single, unifying strategy.

A collection of planning documents can prove useful, especially when you really need to dive into the details. But beware, stakeholders will likely struggle to grasp the “big picture” when presented with a heap of exhaustive documentation. Your original objectives and outcomes may be blurred as discussions will center more on the details than on high-level outcomes.

The advantages of using a unified project planning model are simplicity and clarity. Communications are streamlined and the emphasis of stakeholder conversations can remain focused on the project’s objectives.

Related Courses

Project Management Fundamentals
Agile Project Management
IT Project Management


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