What is a Project Plan?

The one question I'm most frequently asked is what is a project plan? While there is no one single correct answer to the question, most can agree that in a nutshell it's a document which provides the framework for how a project will be managed. But the bigger question is what should be included in it and to what level of detail. In today's blog I discuss the answer to the question of what is a project plan. Whether you're newly PMP certified, new to project management or an old hat, I'm sure you'll gain some insight with today's blog.

Be sure to download our free Project Plan Template or other Project Planning Templates.

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It’s a question that comes up often, and doesn’t seem to have a clear answer. Is a project plan simply an MS Project schedule? Is it a summary document of just a few pages? Or a more in-depth and detailed document containing specifics of every aspect of the project?

As you might imagine, it’s tough to write one if you don’t know exactly what’s expected.

Project Plan Basics

At its most basic level, a project plan – or Project Management Plan, as the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) calls it – is simply a guide for how the project will be managed. Think of it as the project manager’s rulebook. It provides a structure for handling things like changes to the project, communication methods and requirements, and approval processes. It also provides a baseline for the project including cost, scope, and schedule.

When creating a project plan, you have some flexibility regarding the level of detail to include, as long as your plan defines how the project will be planned, executed, monitored and controlled, and closed. It should focus mainly on management processes, while detailing the tools and techniques necessary to meet the needs of that specific project, and may include any subsidiary management plans or other related documents. This formal document typically requires approval from the project sponsor or other stakeholders.

It’s important to remember that a project management plan is a living document. It can and should be frequently updated throughout the life cycle of the project. As you do so, be sure to have all changes approved by the project sponsor and any others as defined in the project plan itself.

Getting Started with a Project Plan

Ideally, a project plan is created after the Project Charter has been signed. It is developed during the planning phase and is an output of the PMBOK Planning Process Group. At a minimum, it should include details about:

  • The project management processes for the entire life cycle of the project.
  • The level of implementation of each process.
  • The tools and techniques to be used to support the project management process.
  • How the work will be executed in order to accomplish your project's objectives.
  • How changes will be managed, monitored and controlled.
  • How configuration management will be performed throughout the project's life cycle.
  • How performance measurement baselines will be maintained.
  • How communications will be performed, including needs for communications and techniques for communication.
  • The process for management review.

In addition, project baselines are an important component of any good project plan. Yours should include schedule, cost performance, and scope baselines at a minimum, and others as deemed necessary by the project manager.

Visit Project Management Docs - Project Plan Template to download a project management plan template which provides an example of how the various components of a project plan fit together.

Subsidiary Management Plans

Project plans often include support documents called subsidiary management plans. Like a project plan, these can be developed at either a summary or detailed level, depending on the requirements of the project. It’s the job of the project management plan to integrate and consolidate all of the subsidiary plans, either as sections of the overall project plan or as appendices to the project plan. Typically, if the subsidiary management plan is a summary, it’s included as a section of the project management plan. More detailed and in-depth plans should be added as an appendix.

Typically, a project plan should at a minimum contain the following subsidiary management plans:

  • Communications Management Plan
  • Cost Management Plan
  • Human Resource Plan
  • Process Improvement Plan
  • Procurement Management Plan
  • Quality Management Plan
  • Requirements Management Plan
  • Risk Management Plan
  • Schedule Management Plan
  • Scope Management Plan

A complete line of subsidiary management plan templates based on the PMBOK model are available as free downloads by visiting Project Management Docs - Subsidiary Management Plan Templates.

Project Documents

Other documentation is often included as a part of a project plan to support the development of the project plan and the management of the project. The PMBOK has broken these documents out from the project management plan in order to differentiate them from the project plan and its subsidiary management plans. Some examples of typical project documents are:

  • Activity Cost Estimates
  • Assumption Log
  • Change Log
  • Contracts
  • Performance Reports
  • Proposals
  • Quality Checklists
  • Resource Calendars
  • Teaming Agreements

Many typical project document templates such as these, and many more, can be found by visiting Project Management Docs - Project Document Templates.

A project management plan is a living document and is often updated throughout the lifecycle of the project. Be sure to keep the project management plan updated throughout the life of the project and have all changes approved by the Project Sponsor and any other approvals as defined in the project plan.

It’s clear that a project management plan can take many forms, from a simple summary to a complex document detailing every aspect of your project. Because of the wide variety of formats available, it’s often best to start your project plan with a template. You can include the sections that fit your needs, remove what’s unnecessary, and edit the details to match your unique project. To get started, simply download any of the templates above.