Automation and Processes

The effective project plan: the project manager's ultimate guide

A good project plan is key to any successful project. Learn how to create an effective project plan in this guide.

Effective project plan - project managers guide
18 May 2022 | 9 min read
Andreas Agerlund Petersen
Journalist, Brand Manager and business aficionado. Andreas' long reads keep you updated on business optimization, project management, legislation and the PSA concept.

Managing a project without a project plan is a bit like driving a car at night without headlights on.

Things unexpectedly appear out of the dark, and you might get lost. In the worst case, you run off the road completely.

As much as 35% of all projects fail, and the budget is lost.

With this kind of statistics, you need a good project plan to manage your project effectively.

Fortunately, it's not that hard to make a good project plan that will guide you safely through the darkness.

In the guide here, you can learn how to become an even better project manager and get answers to questions such as:

  • What is a project plan, and why are project plans necessary?
  • What should a project plan contain, and what are project plan templates?
  • And how do you make a good project plan? (We guide you through the six steps of the process.)

When you have finished the guide, you are ready to create an effective project plan that will help you reach your project goals.

Also read: 5 of the biggest project management mistakes

But first, we must understand; what is a project plan?

What is a project plan?

As the name suggests, a project plan is a plan that documents how exactly you get to the goal of your project.

This is your key document in which you, as a competent project manager, ongoingly work to:

  • Break down the project into phases and activities in a work breakdown structure (WBS) and timeline
  • Set deliveries and milestones
  • Schedule communication
  • Get an overview of the resources you need and assign tasks to your project team
  • Create and update project budgets
  • Keep up to date on the project's progress and status in relation to the timeline and budget

Creating project plans in TimeLog is easy.

Try it for free right here

You must see the project plan as your central tool, which gives you and your team an extensive overview, and which must be updated at regular intervals to remain relevant.

In the past, Excel has been a preferred (though cumbersome) tool for preparing and updating the project plan. Today, however, most project managers use a dedicated project management tool for project planning.

In a good tool, you can also create project plan templates so you do not have to start over on each project.

What is a project plan template?

A project plan template is a pre-defined plan, which is based on the way you work with projects in your company.

You can find several free templates for project plans around the web for Excel or PowerPoint.

Also read: Project management in Excel

However, these have some limitations - such as how long and complex your projects can be - and are a bit difficult to keep up to date.

Becoming a razor-sharp project manager is also about making the planning process easy and efficient. Project plan templates help you do this.

A good project management tool allows you to create a catalogue of project plan templates so you can effectively plan and start new projects. It is especially smart if you do many projects that have to go through similar phases. Or if you sell a lot of standard project types.

A good project plan template should include:

  • Complete phase and task plan (including milestones)
  • A coordinated time schedule
  • Staffing plan and allocations
  • Budget

Becoming a razor-sharp project manager is also about making the planning process as easy and efficient as possible. Project plan templates help you do this.

What should a project plan include?

As a project manager, the project plan is basically your own working document for planning.

However, because the plan should most often be available to the project stakeholders and the project team, it is a good idea to include some standard elements. These are common within project management.

For your own sake, it is also a good idea to plan and document these basic items. Therefore, the project plan must contain a number of elements.

Project planning with plan, scope and RACI

Although the project plan is a central tool for you as a project manager, you need to supplement it with other tools for good project planning and execution.

Before you prepare the project plan, make a project scope to know the project's goal, what is included, and what is not included in the project.

A good scope secures you against scope creep. And your project plan will not be crowded with activities that are not really in the original agreement.

An experienced project manager knows how important it is to delimit his project to deliver within budget and deadline.

While preparing your project plan, creating a RACI matrix early on in your project makes perfect sense.

You can use the RACI matrix to clarify who is responsible for the various tasks and milestones. And who you should consult and inform if deliveries and tasks change

It is practical to you know exactly who to consult and inform when making a decision or changing a deadline that affects other deliveries and deadlines, respectively.

Continuously updating the project's scope, plan and RACI matrix is crucial for the documents to keep making sense throughout the project.

Why is a documented project plan important?

While projects are increasingly going really well, there are also a lot of projects that are not successfully reaching their goal :

  • 35% fail and the budget is lost
  • 34% suffer from scope creep
  • 12% are perceived as decidedly failed

Failed projects are an expensive affair for your business, and therefore it is important that you give your projects the best conditions to be able to succeed.

A documented project plan is (together with the scope) your main work tool to keep the project on track. It gives you a structured overview of tasks, deadlines and progress and it allows you to react when reality does not match the plan.

At the same time, it is a good tool for delegating tasks and communicating progress to the project's stakeholders.

Even on very small projects, a project plan makes good sense. Just remember not to make it more complicated than it needs to be for your project.

If you want to be a successful project manager, it is important that you are flexible and adapt standard models and approaches to the current needs of your project.

Let's look at how you make a good project plan.

How to make a good project plan in 6 steps

When you make your initial project plan, you must do it in parallel with making your project scope.

In fact, it often makes the best sense to work out the various steps in planning iteratively. This means that you have to go back and forth a bit between the different steps. And you may not necessarily be able to "finish" the individual steps until you have also worked on some of the others.

It's a natural part of planning, and once you get started, it will make good sense.

However, there are things in the project scope that you should have in place before you start on the plan itself:

  • Overall project description
  • Project objectives and value creation
  • Limitations
  • Milestones and overall timeline

When it is important that you have control of the milestones before you prepare the project plan, it is because a good project plan is based on the project's deliveries (or products) - and not just the work that needs to be done.

This means that your plan is built around what is to be delivered in the various phases of the project.

If you want to know how to make a good project scope, you can use the guide here.

Click here to see our sample offer!

Once those things are in place, you can get started building your project plan.

Step 1 - Create the first rough work breakdown structure (WBS)

After you have made the scope (or thoroughly familiarized yourself with an existing scope), you are already well on your way to cementing yourself as a competent project manager on the project.

And you can make the first rough sketch for your project plan.

It is at this stage that you place your deliveries in a timeline, and roughly define what work needs to be done to be able to complete the various deliveries.

This is what we call a work breakdown structure (WBS).

Roughly speaking, the initial plan should give you an overview of:

  • What needs to be delivered?
  • What work does it take to be able to deliver?
  • When do we do what?

You can probably build this part of the project plan yourself with the help of your customer or your steering group, which sets out the general guidelines for the project.

In the next step, you involve your project team in the in-depth part of the planning.

Step 2 - Involve the team and get estimates on the work

While the schedule in step # 1 is largely (albeit a little rough) based on when you would like the various deliveries completed, step # 2 helps you keep track of when the deliveries can be completed.

There is, of course, a bit of caricature. And hopefully, you have already involved more from the project team to give rough estimates for the scope. But remember that project planning is an iterative process where you constantly plan, obtain estimates, adjust, etc.

In step 2, you must convene all suppliers of the individual project deliveries - it can be members of the project team or external suppliers.

The exercise consists of getting them to give as accurate estimates as possible:

  • How long do the individual deliveries take?
  • On what are those estimates based? Are there dependencies that need to be incorporated into the plan?
  • When can it be done? When is there time on the calendar?
  • How much risk is associated with their estimates?

Be critical and get the best estimates for the project plan

As a competent project manager, you must assume the role of the devil's advocate when you ask for reasons for the estimates.

The project team often wants to deliver, and therefore the initial estimates may be too optimistic. So drill down and see if you can spot weaknesses in the estimates. Usually, there are bottlenecks and obstacles in this process that you need to know as a project manager.

You can consider estimation as negotiation, where you eventually approach the most realistic estimate.

Click here to see our sample offer!

Step 3 - Get an overview of when project staff are available

One of the biggest obstacles is often access to critical resources.

And often overlooked, project managers, are this aspect of project planning, focusing primarily on estimating the duration of the work. But not so much on who is available to carry it out within the project plan timeline.

Therefore, as a project manager, you must map:

  • What resources do you need for the individual phases and tasks in the project plan?
  • When are the necessary resources available?

A tool like a resource planner can be hugely helpful in this process. It can be challenging to get an overview of employees' unemployment based on calendars and e-mails.

Once you control the resources, you have the pieces you need for your detailed project plan.

Also read: Resource management [4 things you need to get right first]

Step 4 - Prepare your detailed project plan

Now it's about getting the puzzle pieces to fall into place.

As a project manager, you are never more competent than your tools. Especially on more complex projects. Here it is a good idea to have a good project management tool that you can use.

How to prepare your detailed project plan in TimeLog

Here you get a concrete example of how you can make a complete, detailed project plan with milestones, resources, budget and schedule

1) Create a project with TimeLogs Quick Create.

  • Name the project
  • Should it be an external project (standard), an internal project or a project with several customers?
  • Add a customer. Your customers are available in TimeLog's CRM.

2) Add tasks and time budget

If your company has a standard task plan or has saved finished project templates in TimeLog, you almost have the project plan ready now.

You can also create the tasks from scratch. At this step, you can simply create the overall tasks (phases). Later you can create sub-tasks.

Add the estimates you found in step #3 to each task.

3) Add your project team and create the project

You can add as many as you need. Later you can put the project staff on the individual tasks.

4) Add sub-tasks to a complete WBS

In TimeLog's project plan, you now have an overview of the primary tasks you created. You can add more and add sub-tasks to the primary tasks/phases.

5) Add milestones

Milestones are important to keep track of the important deliverables in your project.

Add them as a guide to the work of your project. You can also add those responsible for milestones. The person in charge will see their milestones on the TimeLog front page as the deadline approaches.

6) Add dates and time budgets to tasks and milestones

Once you have all the phases, tasks and milestones in the project plan, it's time to make a schedule and set budgets.

As your project progresses and your project team tracks time on the project, Timelog will keep you updated on progress and whether you are meeting deadlines.

7) Allocate employees and assign hourly rates

Finally, you put employees from your project team on the individual tasks.

When you award employees hourly rates, you can easily invoice later in the project, and keep track of how much revenue you have made on the project.

Get started building your project plan in TimeLog today

Get full access for 30 days for free here


Step 5 - Submit your project plan and get it approved

Now you are about to become a world champion in building project plans.

You have gathered all the relevant information and built your project plan with phases, milestones, schedule, budget and assigned tasks to the employees.

Now is the time to validate and approve your work. Start by consulting your project team.

Get the project plan approved by the project team.

Before you present your plan to the project's customer or steering group, it's a really good idea to have it checked off with your project team.

There may be adjustments that you want to include in the plan at this point and that are easier to spot when you look at the project plan in its entirety.

Make sure you get your hands on the content of the project plan. Among other:

  • Internal dependencies on tasks and phases
  • Time estimates and deadlines
  • Any changes in the availability of your project team

This does not have to take long. But you must get a handshake on this from your project team before going to the steering group or the customer.

Get the project plan approved by the customer and the steering group

The project's other stakeholders must give the final approval of the project plan.

Before convening the customer and the steering group, it is good to summarise the project plan's milestones and scope in a summary. These stakeholders often do not need a detailed plan at the individual task level.

However, include all descriptions of your approach, assumptions and deadlines that you consider relevant for your project plan to appear ambitious and realistic. Descriptions may include:

  • How the project team will approach the project (approach)
  • Major deliveries and milestones
  • Timeline for the phases of the project
  • Phases or tasks that present a particular challenge/risks

You can advantageously highlight elements in the project plan that require effort from the customer or the steering group — for example, approval of deliveries.

At the same time, it is essential that you highlight the project plan's risks and possible bottlenecks so that it does not come as a surprise later in the project.

Step 6 - Execute the project

When your project plan is complete and approved, you have the best prerequisites for being able to execute the project within the framework of the project triangle (scope, budget and time).

You have an overview of the tasks, and when your project team tracks time on their work (both billable and non-billable time), you can easily follow the progress of the project.

If your employees are tracking time as they should, you can also see exactly where the project is sliding if you are suddenly falling behind on schedule or budget.

Then you can put corrective actions into play, adjust your project plan and keep all stakeholders updated.

The ability to continuously correct project plans and make corrective actions will define you as a project manager in a class of its own.

A project management tool that makes planning easier?

TimeLog gives you all the tools you need to drive your project to goals within scope, budget and deadline.

Whether you are a small project team or running complex projects in a larger group, you can use TimeLog as a project management tool.

In TimeLog, you can also pull project reports so that it becomes easy to report to the management team and you can invoice your projects quickly without having to piece together invoices in spreadsheets and multiple systems.

Get ready to execute your projects towards success - Try TimeLog for free right here.

Click here to see our sample offer!


What is a project plan?

A project plan is a document that gives the project manager an overview of all phases, tasks and milestones in a project. In addition, the project plan helps keep track of deadlines, timelines, allocations and budget.

A project plan must always be kept up to date so that it is not outdated. The project plan must also be available to the project's stakeholders to keep up with progress.

What does a project plan contain?

A project plan must be adapted to the needs of the specific project, but can be expanded if necessary for large complex projects. Conversely, simple projects do not necessarily have to contain that much. However, the project plan should include some standard elements:

  • Milestones and schedule
  • Work breakdown structure (WBS) with phases and tasks
  • Project plan budget (distributed on WBS) - both for time consumption and direct expenses
  • The required resources and allocation in the schedule

How to create a project plan?

There is no 100% linear method you can use to make all kinds of project plans. The process is often very iterative and therefore also quite individual in relation to the project's needs.

One bid for an approach would be to make the project scope before making the plan. After that, the procedure could look like this:

  • 1) Create the rough task breakdown structure
  • 2) Involve the project team and get estimates on phases and tasks
  • 3) Get an overview of the availability of resources and book them
  • 4) Prepare your detailed project plan
  • 5) Submit your project plan and get it approved

Where can I find a project plan template?

There are many places on the web where you can find templates for Excel and Power Point project plans.

However, you often run into constraints because it is difficult to do more than simple projects in them or the timeline can only be short. And then they are difficult to maintain and you have to spend a lot of time on administration.

In TimeLog, you can create project plan templates that you can reuse over and over again and that you can customize exactly to your project.

What is a schedule in a project?

The project schedule is the overview, where you can see when the work in the various project phases and tasks must be carried out and when important milestones have deadlines.

The timeline must be kept up to date by the project manager, and everything must have a start and end date. It is also a good idea to identify critical bottlenecks ( critical path) and which tasks and phases need more leeway in time.