10 Critical Elements of an Effective Project Plan
Managing a project from start to completion is not an easy task. It involves the tactful management of numerous variables and constraints.
Actually, a lot of projects that get started do not get completed successfully.
While there are a number of reasons behind this, one of the most relevant reasons is lack of ample preparation.
Undertaking a project is like going to war – if you come to war unprepared, say without enough provisions or weapons, you are likely going to lose.
In the same way, a project that is not well thought out, a project where the team is figuring things out on the fly will be highly inefficient and ineffective.
Even if it achieves its goals, such a project will end up wasting a lot of money, time, and resources.
Figuring things out in advance is the only way to streamline the project processes and ensure swift, effective execution. This is why every project needs a project plan.
Creating an effective project plan is not an intuitive process.
There are at least ten critical elements that must be present in the project plan, some of which you may not consider unless you have a bit of education in effective project management.
In this article, we provide you with that necessary bit of education in project management that will help even a novice in project management to craft an effective project plan.
Below are the ten critical elements of an effective project plan.
1. PROJECT GOALS
A project is like a journey. Every journey needs a destination. If the destination is known, a map can then be formulated. The same is true of projects: if the goals are clear, then a plan for accomplishing those goals can be formulated.
In other words, there can be no project plan without definite project goals.
For that reason, the most important thing the project manager must do before coming up with a plan is figure out exactly what they want the project to achieve.
The best project goals contain five essential characteristics, captured by the acronym SMART.
SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
As we mentioned, a project needs a clear destination. That is what Specific means.
The project formulators must figure out the five Ws of the project goals, which are Who, What, Why, Where, and Which?.
- “Who” refers to the beneficiaries of the project. Who has commissioned the project? Who is the project supposed to benefit? It also refers to the team that will be working on the project. Who are the best people you can hire? Who has the skills you need? Who can you afford with the given budget?
- “What” refers to the specific outcome expected of the project, as well as the project management tools that you will use to achieve this outcome. What do you want to achieve? What are you working with?
- “Why” refers to the relevance or importance of the goal. Why does the school need a new skating rink – might something else be more important? Knowing why a project is necessary is very important if the project is to be completed successfully and efficiently.
- “Where” refers to the location of the project.
- “Which” refers to the resources you need to work on the project. Which resources are at hand?
It’s important to track and measure the progress of the project. How fast are you going? How far do you have left?
Measurable progress helps determine if you are on course, if you are likely to miss a deadline, or if the project is going the right way.
This will help you chart the way forward and ensure you are not late in completing the project.
When you know that you are making progress, this also motivates you to keep putting in the work until the project is achieved.
This is common sense, but not that intuitive in practice.
The project formulators have to think things through deeply to determine if the project they are working on is attainable.
Some projects are impossible, given the existing variables, but they are complex enough to appear deceptively achievable. Figuring out whether a goal is achievable will save a lot of time and resources that would have been wasted.
On the other hand, great projects have ambitious goals that seem to reach beyond what people think is possible. The trick is in knowing the limits, lest the project comes crashing down during execution.
The project formulators should assess the resources they have at hand and the constraints of the project such as scheduling and costs to determine if the project goals can be attained.
The project does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs within the ecosystem of an organization.
That means the project should align to the objectives and mission of the organization. It should be relevant to the greater organization, not just in isolation.
It is the task of the project formulators to figure out how to align their project with the organization’s objectives.
This may involve tweaking the project goal here and there, or picking a different goal altogether.
The project should not go on indefinitely. It needs to have a set deadline, a defined end.
The time constraint ensures resources are used efficiently and with minimal wastage. Furthermore, having clear deadlines for a project motivates the project team to work harder and faster to hit targets and complete the project in good time.
The scope of the project is the total work/tasks/goals that are contained in the project. Small projects have a small scope. Big projects have a large scope.
The scope includes the project’s key milestones, major deliverables, high-level requirements, assumptions, and constraints.
It is absolutely necessary that the project formulators take the time to define the boundaries of the project. In doing so, they will be defining the scope.
Scope creep happens when the project formulators fail to define the scope, only for work to keep increasing during project execution. For instance, when you are working on a research project, it is important to know what questions you will ask and what you will do to get the answers.
In this particular case, scope creep would be new questions popping up during the project execution process, increasing your workload and putting you at serious risk of missing your deadline or requiring extra resources.
Defining the scope also ensures the entire team is focused on the same goals. For instance, if you’re working with a marketing team to create a brochure, defining scope would involve figuring out how many pages the brochure should be.
Some team members might consider a finished product to be one that contains two pages, others four, or ten. It’s important that all team members know exactly how many pages the brochure should contain, so that they can coordinate smoothly.
When a client or management gives new instructions on something new they want done or included in the project, this widens the project’s scope.
3. MILESTONES AND MAJOR DELIVERABLES
The key achievements that the projects must attain are known as milestones.
The key work products produced by the project are known as major deliverables.
These two are important components of the work performed to complete a project: it must attain certain set milestones and it must produce certain set deliverables.
A good project plan clearly defines both the milestones and deliverables of the project. It also sets deadlines for the attainment of the milestones and the deliverables.
Project planners should develop deliverables that align with the project’s overall objectives.
Deliverables are the building blocks of the project. Examples of deliverables include reports, prototypes, plan designs, patents filling, websites, videos, press & media actions, technical diagrams, software, and so on.
Milestones are checkpoints which help the project team chart progress throughout the project’s course.
Milestones enable the team to identify which tasks and key deliverables have been completed.
Once certain milestones have been attained, the team can move on to the project’s next phase.
It’s not possible for a project to operate without finance.
The team needs to be paid, and other project resources cost money as well.
The larger the scope of the project is, the higher the cost of completing the project will be. That is why the project team must take great care to ensure there is zero or minimal scope creep.
To ensure the project does not use more money than it should, the project planners should come up with a budget to be used by the team during execution.
The budget details the allocation of money in the project and provides an estimate of the project’s total cost.
Examples of costs covered by project budgets include operating costs, labor costs, material procurement costs, and so on.
The project budget is not set in stone however. The project is a dynamic thing.
The scope will often expand during execution. As the scope enlarges, the costs increase and the budget must therefore keep being updated throughout the course of the project.
Note that the project’s total cost is linked to the length of time it takes to complete the project.
If you allocate more money to the project (for instance in hiring more people or buying better machinery), completion time will be faster. On the other hand, if you want to use as little money as possible, the completion time might take much longer.
The budget is therefore linked to both the scope and the time. The project planners must ensure that the budget, scope, milestones, and tasks are realistic and aligned.
5. WORK BREAKDOWN STRUCTURE
A work breakdown structure is a tool used in projects to provide a hierarchical structure of outcomes the project will deliver and how they need to be delivered.
Put simpler, the work breakdown structure defines everything the project must accomplish, organizing it all into multiple levels. The work breakdown structure is displayed/represented graphically.
The WBS defines the project’s “what”.
The purpose of the WBS is to break down complex activities into smaller constituents that are easier to manage.
The more complex a project is, the more dearly it needs a work breakdown structure. When there is no work breakdown structure, things are likely to get muddled and the ensuing confusion will make the project miss its deadline or even lead to project failure.
It is therefore extremely important for the project planners to break down the complexity of the project into chunks that are smaller and easier for the project manager and project team to manage.
When developing the work breakdown structure, the project manager will consider each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, the available resources, interdependencies among project tasks, and the overall deadline of the project.
6. HUMAN RESOURCES PLAN
A project is not possible without a team.
These are the people that do the actual work which leads to attainment of the project objectives.
Who you select to be a part of the team is crucial in determining whether the projects succeeds or fails.
The human resources plan demonstrates how the project is staffed: who will be working on the project and how much time commitment is expected of each person.
Furthermore, if the project needs additional staff (for instance, on consultation basis), this too must be documented in the human resources plan.
Appropriate supervisors should be consulted during the process of formulating the work breakdown structure because they can give insights on the strengths or weaknesses and personalities of various proposed team members.
The human resource plan must include the roles and responsibilities of each of the team members.
This will eliminate conflicting or ambiguous expectations around roles and goals. In other words, a well-designed human resources plan is critical for reducing conflicts in projects.
The human resource plan must also include a project organization chart. This is a graphical display of the project team’s composition. The chart includes the various relationships and relative ranks in the team.
In addition, the human resource plan also features a staffing management plan, which defines the approach used to staff the project.
For instance, will you be directly involved in the staffing process or is the project staff pre-assigned? When will the selected people be ready? How available are they to work on the project throughout its duration.
The plan could also include a training plan. After team evaluation, the project manager is able to determine the members’ strengths and weaknesses and identify areas where training will be necessary to improve the team’s performance.
7. RISK MANAGEMENT PLAN
Lots of things can go wrong during a project. Despite disasters and accidents being unforeseeable, they can be expected.
We can’t say with accuracy when they will occur, but we know which risks are more likely to occur than others.
It is the job of the project manager to identify various risks to the project, assess the likelihood of occurrence, and come up with strategies for mitigating those risks.
Risks that have the highest likelihood of occurring, together with risks that have high costs associated with them, are covered by the mitigation strategies put in place by the project manager.
On the other hand, risks that have a lower likelihood of occurring, or that have low costs, may not have mitigation strategies – however, they are still put in the risk management plan.
Examples of risks that face most projects include sickness or the quitting of team members, unavailability of resources, and weather that is not ideal (for instance, a snowstorm), and so on.
There exists four ways of responding to a risk:
- Avoidance – This is when you prevent the risk from occurring. It is the best thing to do with a risk, but that is not always an option.
- Mitigation – Where you can’t avoid the risk, you must mitigate it, which involves taking action that minimizes the damage caused to the project by occurrence of the risk.
- Transference – This is where you pay a person or institution to accept the risk for you – you transfer the risk to them. The most common form of risk transference is buying insurance.
- Acceptance – Where avoidance, mitigation, or transference are not possible, you have to accept the risk.
You can’t wait for a risk event to occur for you to do something about it – by then it will probably be too late.
The project planners must be proactive in identifying the risks and formulating an appropriate response – either preventing, mitigating, transferring, or accepting. Risk management planning is therefore a key element of an effective project plan.
8. STAKEHOLDER MANAGEMENT PLAN
A project team does not exist in isolation and they do not, as we mentioned, execute the project in a vacuum.
The project has a whole ecosystem within it and around it, especially when the project is part of the greater mission of an organization.
The parties that are affected or invested in the project are known as stakeholders.
They include the project team, the beneficiaries, the organization itself, the customers, the project sponsor, regulatory agencies, and so on.
These stakeholders have varying interests and some of them have the influence to determine if the project will succeed or fail. It is therefore absolutely necessary for the project plan to take their concerns or interests into consideration.
The project planners must determine who are the most important stakeholders for the project and interrogate what needs to be done to satisfy them.
It is impractical for the project team to include members that represent all stakeholder groups.
That said, the project will require input and support from the stakeholders for it to be a success.
Certain stakeholders can make or break the project, no matter how impressively the project team has executed it.
Since it is not possible for the project team to include or to directly represent every stakeholder, it is critical that the team comes up with methods of gathering input from stakeholders. It must also devise ways of communicating the project’s status and progress to relevant stakeholders.
It is these methods of input gathering and stakeholder communication strategies that you should document in the stakeholder management plan.
This gives the project a clear framework on how to relate with its stakeholders.
There is some overlap between some functions of the stakeholder management plan and that of the communications plan.
The difference is that the stakeholder management plan addresses communication with a narrower audience of stakeholders who have vested interests. On the other hand, the communication plan has a broader audience in mind.
9. COMMUNICATION PLAN
As we have mentioned, the communication plan is targeted at a broader audience than the stakeholder management plan.
The communication plan aims to streamline communications amongst team members, and with the client and other stakeholders.
The communication plan provides clear guidelines on the sharing of information and defines who needs to receive which information based on their status or responsibilities in the project.
The communication plan does the following:
- Provides written documentation every team member can consult when in doubt.
- Sets clear guidelines on the how and when of update sharing.
- Provides opportunities for feedback sharing.
- Boosts team meetings’ productivity.
- Increases the project’s status and visibility.
- Enables the team to keep the project always aligned with the set goals.
The methods of communication include email, in-person meetings, via-phone meetings, video chat meetings, status reports, discussion boards, collaboration apps, to-do lists, and surveys.
The project planners must review past projects to see what worked or didn’t and consult the team, client, and other relevant stakeholders to ensure their preferred communication methods are considered.
For instance, it would be inefficient to communicate via weekly emails if no one reads their email. Perhaps another mode of communication might be more appropriate.
10. CHANGE MANAGEMENT PLAN
The project is a dynamic thing. Change may occur at any time during execution. It is necessary for the project team to have a change management plan as it provides guidelines on what to do in the event of change. It defines the activities and roles for managing and controlling change during project execution.
Change occurs during the execution, monitoring, and controlling phases of the project lifecycle.
The change management plans ensures that the project team maintains control, since change can often lead to confusion.
Furthermore, change is often demotivating and most people are reluctant to accept change.
Having a change management plan provides some structure to the change process and makes it less unappealing. It communicates to the team that change was inevitable and factored into the calculations of the project manager, that change is itself a part of the project.
The change management plan contains the protocols and processes that must be followed when making changes. This ensures accountability and transparency.
An effectively run project should operate smoothly and with few hitches, hiccups, or bumps.
Team members should know their roles and responsibilities and should not engage in conflict.
Communication should be smooth and efficient, with no delays. The project should not miss the set deadline. The project should use money responsibly and efficiently, no wastage.
All these “should-dos” and more are things you should take into consideration when crafting a project plan, and the best way to make sure that all these “should-dos” are put into consideration is to ensure that your project has the 10 critical elements discussed above.
The more you think through what you want to do and how you want to do it, the more likely that the project will be a success.