A Practical Guide to Project Planning

Did you know almost $1 million is wasted every 20 seconds worldwide due to poor project management practices? Understanding the steps involved in creating an effective plan is important to managing your project efficiently. Let’s explore these steps.

What is project planning?

Project planning sets the stage for completing all the work and documents in your formal project management plan. It outlines stakeholders, budget, deliverables, timeline, resources, schedule, and other things needed to ensure your project runs smoothly.

Your plan should include details about milestones, tasks, and who's responsible for each task so work can be completed accurately and on time. It's also critical to identify and document potential risks and how you plan to deal with them. If you need approval for the plan from project sponsors or executives, mapping out the details of how you'll execute, monitor, control, and close the work will help you get the thumbs-up to move forward with the project.

Here's an example of a construction project plan built using Spreadsheet.com:

Construction Project Plan Template with Gantt View
Construction Project Plan Template with Gantt View

The template can be adapted to any project type or size and makes planning more manageable, organizing people, tasks, and action items. Within the spreadsheet, a single workbook allows you to plan and document your project. Each tab contains at-a-glance information, including tasks and who's assigned to them, due dates, status, and more for better visibility into the progress of your project.

Why is planning important?

Think of it as a road map to reach your desired destination. If you're planning a trip, you know your final destination, but you also need a map to know which turns to take, the distances involved, and the stops to make along the way. 

Project planning works in a similar way. Setting realistic goals and breaking large goals into smaller tasks will help your company reach that final destination and bring your project to completion.

Your plan should act as a guide to keep your project on the right path.

Of course, at times, circumstances can change the trajectory of your project. Adaptability, agility, and the right tools can help you adjust and get back on track with little notice.

How to create and manage a project plan, broken down into key stages

Whether you're working on a simple project like updating a database, or a more complex one such as a project launch plan, breaking your plan into stages helps your project come into focus. Creating a project plan using Spreadsheet.com will help you gain insight into your project. You'll have a high-level overview while drilling down into progress percentages, deadlines, owners, and other details for each task.

Product Launch Plan Template with Gantt
Product Launch Plan Template with Gantt

Here are the eight stages of project planning you can use to break down tasks, estimate costs, organize resources, and set realistic timelines for your project.


1. Gather requirements

Gathering, analyzing, and mapping requirements will help lay the groundwork for meeting project and business goals and visions. In this stage, you'll identify the problems as well as the corresponding deliverables and project methodologies you'll use to achieve the project goals.

Methodologies are the principles, techniques, and procedures used to complete the work. Make sure to trace requirements back to your goals so you can:

  • Use time and resources effectively
  • Align stakeholder effort and secure buy-in
  • Improve accountability
  • Enhance the quality of deliverables
  • Minimize risks
2. Determine the project scope

The next step is to determine the scope of your project: the timeline, budget, and milestones. Determining scope involves identifying what's included in the project and what's not. It's a critical step to limit “scope creep," a term used to describe when a project gets bigger, goes off track, or spirals out of control. 

For example, imagine you're building a garage. The scope consists of things like the size, dimensions, materials, time to build, the people involved, and their roles. Any changes that increase cost or time to build would be considered scope creep — like if someone in the middle of the project decided to also redo the driveway.

Accurately defining scope helps manage expectations, aligns projects with business goals, and helps to ensure the work gets done on time.

3. Develop a work breakdown structure

Project planning requires not just a high-level view but also a work breakdown structure (WBS). A WBS helps deconstruct a project to get a top-down view of prioritized tasks, who's assigned to each one, and all of the deliverables. It allows project managers to follow and update the status of work and make modifications.

In a residential building project, for example, you would break down the steps within each subcontracted stage, such as excavating, pouring concrete for the foundation, framing the house, and so forth. Details about who's responsible for each step and their specific tasks would be documented in a WBS. This provides the more granular information needed to complete the work.

4. Outline tasks and task assignments

In this step, you need to assign tasks to your team members and monitor their progress.

Traditionally, task assignments have been based on functional groups, but today's companies are increasingly assigning them based on individual workers' skills. This operating model allows companies to direct workers with highly sought-after skills, such as data scientists, to projects where they're most needed. It also allows organizations to respond quickly to changes in business or market demand.

No matter how you delegate your tasks, it's important to clearly define and track them. Doing so will help your team to:

  • Understand who's responsible for each task
  • Track tasks back to project and business goals
  • Distribute workloads more efficiently.

This team task and objectives template can help you assign and track tasks for each team member, measure performance, and reassign work as things change to ensure project timelines are met.

Team Objectives and Tasks Template
Team Objectives and Tasks Template

You can track your team's short- and long-term goals, record individual tasks, assign them to owners, and track their progress and due dates. You can also use one of the built-in Kanban views to break down tasks by status and progress. Additionally, "Related" rows link each task to its corresponding objective in the "Objectives" sheet and the responsible team in the "Teams" sheet.

5. Create a timeline

PMAlliance points out that there's a need for ongoing schedule planning throughout the project. Tasks and milestones often shift due to dependencies and resource shortages. Unless the project manager has a clear view of dependencies, project timelines can be impacted.

One of the practical tools to help monitor project timelines is a Gantt chart. A Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that provides a visual picture of project tasks scheduled over a period of time.

Using a simple Gantt chart template can help you set, monitor, and adjust your timeline and due dates to ensure your project schedule is realistic and achievable.

6. Create  cost and budget estimates

Oftentimes unforeseen costs come up. Accurately tracking every dollar can help you keep your budget on track.

It’s estimated that at least 85 percent of every project is over budget. Some of the reasons include:

  • Poor or infrequent communication
  • Inexperienced project managers
  • Poor resource allocation.

Templates such as Spreadsheet.com’s construction budget template can be adapted to any project. It can help you track expenses with more precision and align your budget with actual costs.

Construction Budget Plan Template
Construction Budget Plan Template

This template is designed to help manage the budget throughout the entire project. Cost codes can be linked to invoices and purchases, while worksheets for tracking vendors, subcontractors, and rentals can also be linked together with invoices and purchases using "Related" rows.

Alternatively, you can include budget information in a scheduling template.

Construction Schedule for Basement Finish Template
Construction Schedule for Basement Finish Template

This template includes a detailed “Materials” worksheet for listing links, images, costs, and quantities. These materials can be assigned to specific tasks to aid in estimating the overall project cost.

Note that this project management template uses the Gantt view and project management features. It also uses Related Rows feature for listing the materials and a Related Row Rollup data type for returning the total materials costs for each task.

7. Manage resources

Effective resourcing is about being able to accurately track and assign work to your available people, as well as rapidly re-allocate team members to specific tasks as circumstances change. Making use of technology — including project management templates— is essential for capacity planning and resource management. A simple team task list can help you keep track of who has extra bandwidth and who's overloaded.

Team Task List Template
Team Task List Template
8. Assess risks

Accounting for risks, both minimal and significant, is an important factor in managing projects. Effectively managing risks requires the ability to anticipate and track potential issues before they happen — and it starts with planning, where you identify, analyze, categorize, and prioritize risks.

The impact of risks will depend on the type and whether they're internal or external to your business. 

Once a risk has been identified and prioritized, you can assign management strategies to each risk and monitor them using a RACI matrix template. It provides details about:

  • Who will complete each task (Responsible)
  • Who will make decisions and act on a specific task (Accountable)
  • Who to communicate with about tasks (Consulted)
  • Who to inform on decisions and actions (Informed).

This example of a RACI matrix template provides an effective means for defining and documenting project roles and responsibilities to reduce risk.

RACI Matrix Template
RACI Matrix Template

Project planning: The key to success

No matter the type, size, or complexity of your project, planning is a must. Working in ways you're accustomed to is also important. Spreadsheet.com templates offer the convenience of the spreadsheets you already know within a platform that has the power of a database and project management system. Excel project management template is also available in our gallery.

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