How to make a project plan

Some things are easy to get done. Pop a task on your to-do list. Do it. Cross it off your list. Done. Some things take a bit more planning.

How do I define projects?

Any and all those things that need to get done within the next few weeks or months that require more than one action step to complete.
— David Allen

I’d add something to David Allen’s definition: do you do it often? You will have lots of things you do daily, weekly or monthly, at home or in your business, that take more than one step. These aren't projects and don't need a plan. Plans are about dealing with uncertainty. They handle the unknowns and wobbly assumptions that come with doing something new or different. Things you do week in, week out, don’t have this problem. Though you might want to use checklists to make sure you do them consistently well. 

So - if it’s more than one step and you don’t do it often, you need to make a plan. 

Before you make a plan, decide what you’re planning

Pretty obvious, right? But lots of projects I’ve worked on haven’t turned out the way people expected because no-one was clear on why we were bothering to do all that work in the first place. Your goal is likely to fall into one of these buckets:

  • To get something. More customers, higher sales, a new bit of tech, an extra employee, fitness…
  • To lose something. Overheads, a redundant piece of equipment, space you don’t use, bad habits, weight…
  • To make something. A product, a new service for your customers, a party…
  • To change something. A broken process, an out of date system, your business branding…
  • To get somewhere. On holiday, into your new office, to the moon…

Once you’ve figured out what you are trying to do, it’s good to be clear about how you’ll know when you’ve done it. What's the return you want, for the effort you're about to put in? Imagine you're planning a new marketing campaign to bring in more customers. You might want to set a goal for how many customers you want to get. 

You could get even more specific. Are you going to count new visitors to your website, or only the ones that buy something? Will you count sales in your physical store too? What about phone or email enquiries? 

This isn’t about setting a target and then beating yourself up later when you fail. It’s more like testing a hypothesis. “I think if I do x and Y, then I’ll get 50% more email signups on my website.” Then later on you can go “Oh right, I only got 10% more, so I’ve learned that thing doesn’t work as well as I expected”. Or, “Wow I got 100% more, this thing is awesome, I’ll do more of this.”  If you don’t know what you were aiming at, how will you know what you learned?

Getting this stuff clear now also means you can plan for anything extra you might need in the way of measuring. For instance, if you haven't got web analytics set up, how will you measure site visitors? Another task to add to your plan...

What do you already know?

There will be lots of things you’ve already decided about how you’re going to do this thing. They will have been part of the decision process that led you to make a plan. Maybe how much money or time you’re prepared to spend, or who you want to help you do it.

Some of these things will be definite facts, and some will be more like assumptions. Either way, getting them out of your head and on to paper now means you can factor them in as you make your plan. I like to jot things under these headings:

  • Time Deadlines, holidays, festivals, and other events that might help or hinder you.
  • Money What can you afford to spend? Where will you get the money? How much do you hope to make or save?
  • People Who will work on the project? You, your team, business partners, friends, family…
  • Tools What technology or other tools will you use? Do you need to buy new ones?
  • Materials Will you need any materials for the project? Where will you get them?
  • Spaces Where will you do the project? Do you need to find extra space to work in? Will you need more space as a result of the project?

Start your project plan by brainstorming

Now you can get planning. Write down every single step you can think of that you need to do to get to done:

  • Every task
  • Every decision to be made

Do this as a group, if there are several of you working on the project. Sticky notes are good for this, especially if you’re planning as a group. You might also use index cards or some form of digital document that lets you make lists quickly. See this article for tips on brainstorming when you don't want to use stickies and a wall. I wouldn't use just pen and paper (unless it was a small project) because you need to be able to group and reorder things later. 

Group and order your tasks

You'll now have a whole load of stickies/index cards/list items. Or not so many, depending on how big and complicated your project is. These are your tasks. You need to put them in some kind of order, so you know where to start:

  • Some things need to happen in sequence. Being able to start one task can often depend on you finishing another.
  • Some things you can't begin immediately. Maybe you need to wait for something else to happen, or the task is related to a given date.
  • Some things you can do in parallel. Maybe you have several people on the project or you’re getting some tasks done by a supplier.
  • You might order by priority: doing the things that deliver most return for your effort first, or the things you are most confident will work. For instance, imagine you planned 6 different tactics to increase email signups on your site. What if the first tactic gets you to your goal for more sign ups? You might decide not to bother doing the other things. Or you might carry on and do them anyway and smash your target. You can choose. 

If you have a lot of tasks (more than 15 or so), group them. Breaking your plan into smaller blocks of work will make it easier to tackle. It also creates natural breaks where you can pause and reflect on what you’ve done so far. These are good moments to decide if you want to continue as you planned, change direction, or stop the project entirely. 

The two groups I use most often are: 

  • Milestones. Break your plan into significant achievements and decision points, and group related tasks underneath. This is a good approach for planning to a deadline and for projects where you're reasonably sure about the work that needs doing. 
  • Sprints. Break up your plan into fixed blocks of time (usually one or two weeks). This is useful for projects where there's no fixed deadline. Pushing to get a set of tasks done by the end of the sprint can help keep you motivated.  It’s also useful for projects where you're not sure how much of your plan you need to do, to get the results you wanted.

Time for a reality check

Go back to the notes you made on what you are trying to achieve, and what you already know. Can you get what you want, in the time you have, with the money, people, tools and other things available to you?

If not, rearrange and edit your tasks until it feels realistic to you. Stretch it out if you need to fit it around your day job. Think about getting more people or time-saving tools if you need to hit a deadline. Are there 'nice to have' tasks you can take out? Be honest - is the plan still worth doing?

This is your chance to prototype and test your ideas on paper. Just because you started a project plan doesn't mean you have to go through with the project.

Well done. You made a plan.

You probably want to document it somehow, for yourself or to share with others. There are lots of ways to do this, but that’s for another post! For a quick record, I take a photo with my phone. Even if you mean to keep your stickies on the wall till you've finished the project, trust me: they fall off in the end.