How to share a project plan

However you make your plans, you’re likely to want to write them down. If for no other reason than to take the sticky notes you used for brainstorming off your wall. But there are lots of other reasons to document and share a plan.

Written project plans show you where you are. Knowing where you are is essential to deciding what to focus on next. You want to know at a glance what’s been done and what’s left. Where you are versus where you wanted to be. Should you speed up or can you relax a bit? You don’t want to carry all that information round in your head.

Written project plans help you communicate with others, in a way they understand, at the right level of detail for their needs. Your boss or your investor might not want all the detail, just the big milestones and dates and roughly what you're planning to spend the money/time on. The people working on the project with you need to know what tasks they should be working on, and when they should be done by. Neither of these groups are mind readers.

Written project plans help you work as a team. Do you really want to be the only person who checks and updates the plan, tells everyone what they need to do next, answers the constant stream of questions about where we are, are we on schedule, should we panic and freak out yet? Thought not. Put your plan where everyone can see an up to date version. Even better, put it somewhere they can update it themselves, so you aren’t stuck playing project manager all day.

What to include

You might not need to write all of this into your plan, but it’s common to add the following things.

  • Tasks What needs to be done, plus any notes about what has been done, any issues, and what needs doing next.
  • Groups of tasks You might be grouping by sprints or by milestones.
  • Dependencies For instance, tasks that can’t be started until others have finished.
  • Responsibilities Who is doing what. You might also need to think about who needs to check things or agree to things, even if they aren’t doing the work.
  • Estimates You might not always need these. If you do, be clear about whether your estimates are about effort (the amount of work you think is needed) or duration (the time period over which the work will be done). A week of effort is very different from a day of effort spread over a duration of a week.
  • Dates Deadlines for individual tasks, or planned completion dates. These aren’t always the same thing - sometimes you do things earlier than you have to. If timing is very important to your plan you might want to keep notes of planned and actual completion dates, to help you see if your plan is running late.
  • Where are we now A clear marker for ‘today’ makes a timeline much easier to read.

What's the best approach?

There isn't a right answer for writing plans. I’ll talk you through the main options I use, when I use them, and some tools that I think work well.

Some approaches are good for showing your plan at a high level to people outside the team. Some are better for sharing your plan with your team so they can update it themselves. If there are people with an interest in the project who aren't actually working on it, like bosses, clients or investors, you might need a couple of versions: one for them, one for the team.

Some approaches work better for milestone-type plans, and some are better for sprint-type plans. (If I just lost you there, you might want to look at my post on how to plan a project, where I explain the different ways to group the tasks in your plan.) Think about how you want to organise your plan before choosing how to write it down.

Some tools are great when everyone’s working in the same room. Others are good for people who are running around a lot or working from different locations. Think about how and where you will be working before picking a tool.

So - what are your options?

Timeline project plans

Timelines show the tasks in your plan as a series of steps over time. Usually in the western world time is shown horizontally and left to right, though there's no reason why you shouldn't go top to bottom (or bottom to top) with your timeline if that suits you better.

Timelines are good for plans where:

  • There are dates involved. Your overall deadline, and milestone dates you'd like to hit along the way.
  • There are a lot of dependencies between tasks. That is, you can't start one thing until you've finished another. You also find start-to-start and finish-to-finish dependencies for some tasks.
  • You have different teams working in parallel on different groups of tasks. By showing the tasks for each team in a separate 'swim lane' on your plan, it's easy to see at a glance who's doing what.
  • You want to show progress. On timeline plans, tasks are often represented by bars. The longer the task, the longer the bar. By colouring in the bars as the tasks are completed, you get a great visual representation of what's done, and what's left to do.

Sticky notes can make a perfectly good timeline plan, so long as the whole team is working in the same room. You might need to draw a simplified version if you wan to share it with people outside the team, though.

Digital stickies let you do the same thing, but for a team not in the same room. Look at Stormboard - free for up to five users.

Presentation or drawing tools allow you to create an attractive timeline plan to share with others, at any level of detail you need. PowerPoint or Keynote are useful for high level plans that you need to drop into a presentation. They’re terrible for working as a team though. If you need a collaborative drawing tool, or just a bigger canvas, try Google Drawings or Gliffy.

Project planners can draw timelines for you; the feature may be called a Gantt Chart. To get a realistic timeline you do need to enter all your estimates, dates and dependencies, and if these facts are a little hazy then your timeline will be hazy too. It can also be frustrating if you are trying to get a timeline to look how you want and the tool keeps ‘drawing it wrong’. The reason will be buried in the data you entered, and it can take a long time to hunt down the flaw in your logic. I prefer to do my own drawing but if you’re a data person rather than a drawing person you might like them. I tried Wrike recently and it was a big improvement on the dread Microsoft Project I wrestled with as a project manager. Wrike’s timeline feature is only on the paid plans but there’s a free trial.

To do list project plans

A really simple way to share your plan is a list of tasks to be done. It's helpful if the tasks are listed in the order they need to be completed. For larger projects, break your project into a series of lists. You can match these up to your milestones or sprints.

Lists are good for:

  • Showing due dates It’s easy to add columns for planned, expected and actual dates.
  • Who’s doing what Plus any other notes about the task.
  • All the other bits of information that don’t fit elsewhere in the plan. I don't think I ever saw a project where someone wasn't using a list for something: stuff we have to do this week, problems we need to sort out, stuff we're waiting for from suppliers...even if you are using something else to share your masterplan, you will need something to store lists in as well.

Dependencies can be more of a problem. You can add them to the list, but they are hard to visualise.

Physical lists can be stored in your notebook if it's just you, a whiteboard or your trusty sticky notes if it's a group. Not so good for teams that aren't working together, though. I really struggled with notebook lists until I tried the Bullet Journal technique.

To do list apps are great for your personal projects. Cloud-based lists often come with sharing features that work for team projects too. I like ToDoist and TeuxDeux.

Outliners let you group tasks as well as order them, and many outliners have ways to add due dates and mark list items as done. Workflowy* is a very fast and simple outliner that has replaced OmniOutliner as my weapon of choice. For a more complex project, OmniOutliner has the ability to add and sort on extra columns.

Spreadsheets aren’t the prettiest solution, but they’re very flexible. That’s probably why they’re the backbone of every project manager's toolkit. You control what you have in your list, so you can add due dates, assign tasks to people, and add as many columns for notes and status as you want. If you’re working as a team, try Google Sheets. It’s not fancy, but it’s got enough features to handle a perfectly good list and you won’t have to do all the updating yourself. Save Excel for when you really need a Pivot Table.

Kanban boards

You might argue that these are just a special kind of list, but there are some things about how they are set up and used that I think makes them worth considering as a separate category.

Kanban boards were developed in manufacturing, as a highly efficient way of managing production workload and maximising throughput. They spread out into other fields, notably software development through the Agile movement.

Now you see them in all sorts of situations, probably being used in a way that would make their inventors throw up their hands in horror, but nevertheless still helping people get stuff done more efficiently than they would using traditional Gantt charts.

The typical Kanban board has three lists or columns: To do, Doing, and Done.

  • Each task is represented by a card.
  • The cards are initially all stacked in To do, in order of priority.
  • When someone starts working on a task, they pull it into Doing.
  • When they finish it, they move it to Done.
  • All the cards (tasks) flow left to right across the board like this, until the project is finished.

Generally, if you are working Kanban-style, you try to minimise how much is in Doing, so that people work efficiently on one thing at a time.

You often see other columns added to the board - for tasks that are ‘stuck’ for some reason, or different Doing columns for each team working on the project.

Kanban boards combine the visual richness of a timeline, with the simplicity of a list. It's easy to set the board up and work with it. Everyone on the team can add notes, update task status and move tasks around. For group projects, this is my go-to style of planning.

If you want to track a series of deadlines through your plan, you might find Kanbans aren't as good for you as a timeline. If you are using a sprint style plan then Kanbans are definitely the way to go. Remember to re-prioritise your To do column at the end of each sprint, to make sure you're using your time in the best way possible.

Traditionally Kanban boards are physical. For tasks, use stickies, index cards and pins, or cards and magnet pins, depending on what your board is made of. Great for a team working in the same room. Hopeless if you have a team in different places. If you need to work remotely, there are loads of Kanban boards on the market. Trello* is my first choice - simple to get started, loads of extra features and integrations if you want to get fancy. And it’s free.

Too many plans?

Don't think you're getting it wrong if you’re using a timeline, lists and a Kanban board. That's totally normal, especially on large or complex projects.

The purpose of writing down a plan is to share it with people in the way that makes it easiest for them to understand and act on. The way your boss or your investors need to understand and act on it isn't how you and your team working to the plan need to understand and act on it. Just try to keep it so that you only have one version of the plan for each group you’re sharing with.

My usual set-up for a moderately complex project would be:

  • Plan on a page in PowerPoint or Keynote, for people outside the team.
  • Kanban board in Trello, for the people actually doing the work
  • Lists on the cards in Trello, to break down each task into mini steps - plus probably tasks in my personal to do list as well, to make sure I remember to do them.

How do you plan?

If you're new to this planning game, try a few different ways to find what works best for you. Let me know how you get on! And if you're an old hand, and there's something I've missed, please let me know.

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