How to Plan a Project in 4 Simple Steps

image of a project plan in a how to guide on planning a project in 4 simple steps
Need to plan your project? Don't know where to start?

Plan your project easily using this guide and our proven project plan templates
Planning your project is one of the most important aspects of successful project management. Project planning follows a sequence of steps beginning with a breakdown of the project deliverables and ending with a detailed project schedule showing the resources, tasks and dependencies against a day-by-day calendar.
Plan Projects Simply is a straightforward project planning method which can guarantee improved project success through a 4 stage collaborative approach to planning your project.

Planning Step 1 - Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

To plan a project you need to be sure that you have captured all of the deliverables and tasks that make up the finished product in a Work Breakdown Structure. Get your team together and ask them to spend 10 - 15 mins listing all of the tasks that they can think of and writing them on post-its.

When you have plenty of post-its, write the end result of the project and place it at the top of the wall or on a white board. Underneath put up post its representing the key deliverables. For example, if you are implementing some new software the final product would be 'Software launched'. Underneath might be 'Staff trained' and 'Software installed'. Arrange the post-its in a hierarchy like an organization chart.

example of a work breakdown structure

Learn how to create Work Breakdown Structures. See real-world examples of Work Breakdown Structures.

Planning Step 2 - Precedence Diagram

Now you know what you need to do, you need to work out in what order the work needs to happen. Tape some flipchart paper to the wall or use a whiteboard. Put the top deliverable from your work breakdown structure on to the right hand side of the board or paper. Then, take the post-its from your breakdown structure and arrange them in the order in which they need to happen.

Work from the left until you have mapped out the dependencies between the tasks and you have a sequence of tasks running from left to right. Finally, draw arrows between any tasks that are linked, and make sure that there aren't any tasks sitting isolated.

Here is a simple Precedence Diagram.

precedence or project flow diagram

Tip: You don't need to open your project planning software until you get to this step!
Once you have completed your Precedence Diagram, type all of the tasks into your project planning software. As far as possible, try to follow the logical sequence that you mapped out with the post-its. Most planning software will enable you to link tasks so that you can accurately reflect the sequence in your diagram. More on Precedence Diagrams and Project Dependencies.

Now we have broken down the work and created the Precedence Diagram it's time to estimate the effort involved in each task.

Planning Step 3 - Estimate effort

In a group session simply go through your project plan and ask your team to estimate the effort involved for each task.

Once you have entered the task effort, your planning software will automatically calculate the start and finish date for each task and provided you have entered the project logic correctly, it will return an accurate possible end date.

Project go live calculated by MS project

At this point the end date can only be achieved if sufficient resources are available. That is why it is only a possible end date. More on estimating effort and scheduling.

Planning Step 4 Resource Allocation

resources allocated to project tasks

You have entered all of your tasks and task durations in your scheduling software, so now it is time to add resources. Resources are usually people, but they can also be materials, such as machinery or automated processes.

Against each task, enter the name of the person, machine, or process who will be responsible for the completion of the task. Where possible, enter a named person, as this will help you to hold them accountable for progress and to manage their work by producing to do lists, calendars and work load profiles.

The skill in project planning involves balancing two key factors: time and resources. Plans may show a finish date that is acceptable, but resources may be overloaded to achieve that date. Alternatively, resource requirements may be within limits, but the project end date is much later than your Client would like. More on resource allocation.

There are many ways to resolve scheduling issues and more detail is given in the MS Project User Guide provided with our MS Project Templates.

Summary of the Four Steps

You have probably noticed how important it is to complete each step of the planning process.
  • Step 1 ensures that you have captured all of the work.
  • Step 2 defines the order of the work.
  • Step 3 focuses on accurately estimating the effort required.
  • Step 4 brings everything together by adding resources.
By following these simple steps you can considerably increase your chances that the project will be delivered on time, on budget and to the desired quality. Need to plan your project? Don't know where to start? Use our ready made project plan templates developed for real world projects.

Each plan comes with a detailed user guide with project planning tips and techniques for managing project planning challenges.