How to Create a Project Management Plan: Step-by-Step Guide

Want to know how to create a project management plan? What do project management experts suggest?

According to management expert Scott Berkun, the planning phase is about figuring out what your project is trying to accomplish. In Making Things Happen, Berkun walks readers through how to create a project management plan based on each step of the planning and pre-planning phase.

Read on to learn how to create a project management plan, according to Berkun’s guide.

Creating a Project Management Plan

The first phase of any project is planning. In his book Making Things Happen, management expert Scott Berkun argues that the planning phase is about figuring out what the project is trying to accomplish. This phase consists of three sub-steps: setting a schedule, determining requirements, and creating vision documents. However, there is no one-size-fits-all method for creating a project management plan—some projects may involve extensive planning while others may use a trial-and-error approach in which very little planning is needed. In this article, we’ll explain how to create a project management plan by first explaining the pre-planning phase, then walking you through Berkun’s three steps that follow pre-planning.

The Pre-Planning Phase

According to Berkun, there are three criteria you should consider before you begin creating a project management plan: the size of the team, who has the authority to make decisions, and the three viewpoints of a project.

Size

The amount of people working on a project has a big impact on its organizational structure and relationships. In general, the bigger the team, the more planning you’ll need to ensure a project’s success. Consider how differently you might approach a project with a team of five people versus a team of 100. With a larger team, if you don’t have a detailed plan and process laid out, people will spend too much time trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing, or you might have two separate people or groups working on the same task.

(Shortform note: Besides the ones Berkun mentions, there are many other reasons planning for large teams is difficult. For instance, maintaining effective communication throughout a project is a major challenge with large teams, and it’s something you’ll have to account for when planning. Another challenge of large teams is a potential lack of motivation among employees. In a large team, people may feel like they’re just a cog in a machine and lose motivation to work hard. There’s not much you can do to plan for a challenge such as this.) 

Authority

When any team member is confused about who has authority in a situation, problems arise and people become frustrated. To create a project management plan, from the very beginning, everyone working on it should know exactly who’s in charge of all aspects of the project: deciding the goals of the project, the design, the scheduling and budget, and so on. That way, everyone knows who to go to with a question or problem, and no workplace tensions arise as a result.

(Shortform note: In addition to clearly stating who’s in charge of what, the author of Inspired also recommends using a non-hierarchical reporting structure when creating a project management plan. In other words, no one should be reporting only to the project manager, but rather to another superior who’s in the same field as you. This helps employees feel they have more authority and more say in the direction and outcome of the project.) 

Viewpoints

Berkun claims there are three different viewpoints of a project: the business view, the design view, and the customer’s view. A project manager, and anyone else involved in planning, should be well acquainted with each of these viewpoints and how they each contribute to the project. The project manager must also give proper weight to each viewpoint. Let’s take a brief look at what each perspective adds to a project.

(Shortform note: One way a project manager can balance the different viewpoints of a project is to set clear and realistic expectations about what your business can provide. If the fulfillable needs of the customer are laid out specifically, the viewpoints of the design team, the customer, and the business can be aligned from the outset. Not stating what your business can realistically provide can result in unhappy customers, an ineffective business model, and overworked or underappreciated employees.)

Business viewpoint: The business viewpoint involves the financial aspects of a project, such as sales, marketing, competition, and costs. In the end, building a financially viable product is in everyone’s interest, as it pays for the project and the salaries of every employee. A manager should not only understand the business viewpoint of the project but also convey it to people in other areas of the project. If the design team doesn’t understand the business side, for instance, management decisions may appear illogical, and tensions may arise. 

(Shortform note: Though profits are ultimately what drive a business or project, a study found that managers who focus on profits over everything else actually hurt the company’s bottom line. If a manager prioritizes profits over employees or ethical practices, employees are more likely to disapprove of their leadership and withhold their productivity. Even if you explain the prioritization of profits to others on your team, as Berkun suggests, you probably still won’t win their support if you thereby sacrifice their well-being.) 

Design viewpoint: The design viewpoint focuses on how the product is built. The designers of a project, whether software developers or mechanical engineers, consider what the product is meant to do, how it will work, how it will be built, how well it’s built, and how long it will take to build. It’s the manager’s job to make sure the designers are building something that will make a profit and satisfy the customer’s needs.

(Shortform note: According to Berkun, it’s the manager’s job to consider all relevant viewpoints for a product. This is important because, on their own, good designers often don’t consider other viewpoints and end up making bad products. In The Design of Everything Things, Don Norman explains that designers and engineers often think about the functionality of objects in a much more logical way than most of the population. They may create a product that fulfills every logical need but that doesn’t appeal to humans emotionally. Another reason they may create a bad product is because they have budget or marketing limitations. A good project manager should be able to balance the budget and ensure designers have the resources they need when creating a project management plan.)

Customer’s viewpoint: The most important viewpoint of a project, according to Berkun, is the customer’s. A project, after all, is usually made to serve a customer, but many organizations spend the least amount of time and energy focusing on the customer’s perspective. A product manager should pay special attention to the needs and desires of customers to make sure what’s being built is satisfying these needs and desires. To get a better understanding of the customer’s viewpoint, you can heed the specific requests of customers or perform your own research to see what they want from a product or what issues they need solved. 

(Shortform note: In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen argues, much like Berkun, that customers (and investors) dictate an organization’s direction more than any manager or leader. One downside to this, according to Christensen, is that it can stifle innovation because disruptive technologies are usually unappealing to customers at first. When a new product or invention fails to appeal to customers and thus fails to make substantial profits early on, investors and employees won’t want to spend any more time and resources on it. Because of this, it can be better to focus less on the customer’s viewpoint when trying to make an innovative product.)

After Pre-Planning

After the pre-planning phase of a project, where you determined the size, authority, and viewpoints of your project, you’ll move on to the planning phase which includes schedules, requirements, and a vision document.

Schedules

Berkun claims that schedules are notoriously unreliable: Many projects fall behind schedule, which can result in over-budget projects, angry customers, and overworked employees and managers. As a project manager, you should understand why schedules are unreliable and what you can do to get the most out of them. 

Berkun states that a project manager must be aware that schedules, especially early on in the project, are rough estimates based on limited information. Estimating is hard, as it’s impossible to know how the work will develop and what might change over the course of the project, so a schedule shouldn’t be seen as a realistic prediction. The manager, as well as the rest of the team, should recognize that the schedule is merely a jumping-off point that will hopefully get more accurate as time goes on. 

How to Avoid Small Delays

In The Mythical Man-Month, Brooks points out that projects usually fall behind due to a gradual accumulation of small delays rather than major problems or issues. This is because big problems are dealt with accordingly, but smaller delays are often overlooked and underreported. 

To avoid small delays in a project, Brooks recommends setting specific benchmarks that are easy to track and easy to determine if they’re complete. This way, it’ll be much easier to track the project’s progress as a whole and there won’t be confusion on whether a task is finished. This also helps prevent small delays from being overlooked, as you’ll always know whether a task is finished or not. 

Similarly, Berkun’s tips on getting the most out of schedules also help employees avoid small delays by, for example, being realistic about what schedules can and can’t do. Frequent reviews ensure changes are taken into account and schedules adjusted accordingly. Finally, transparency toward team members and a recognition of what they can and cannot accomplish keeps everyone up-to-date and working only to the best of their individual abilities. This way, unexpected delays are mostly avoided.  

Requirements

Once you have a schedule, you can then move on to gathering requirements. According to Berkun, a requirement is any condition that needs to be met for the project to be considered finished. Project requirements help determine what the team is trying to accomplish or what problem the project is going to solve. They should be simple, so designers have room for interpretation and can brainstorm different ways to solve the problem.  

Vision Documents

To finish creating a project management plan, you’ll need to make a vision document. A vision document is a written description of a project’s main goals and objectives (vision), and any other information found during initial planning, such as customer research

How to Create a Project Management Plan: Step-by-Step Guide

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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