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Creating an effective project plan is a key skill, not just for project managers, but for any leader in today’s business environment.  With industries rapidly changing, technology innovations coming daily, and the pressure to optimize businesses ever present, grasping how to create a simple project plan is a key first step in running every business. For non project managers, creating an effective project plan can be a more daunting task amid all of our other daily responsibilities but it doesn't have to be.

While project managers use robust tools to develop their project plans, the sophistication offered in these systems is often overkill for everyday project management purposes.  A simple project plan that will enable you to drive an initiative forward needs only a few key components to help you track and ultimately achieve your goals.  To create an effective project plan there are a few elements that you should include.

Key Components of a Simple Project Plan

  • Task / Action – The ‘to do’ or deliverable that needs to be completed to progress the project.
  • Status – Reflect the status of the action so that everyone can quickly understand if everything is on track or if some mitigating action needs to be taken.  Some common statuses to use are:  Not Started, On Track, At Risk, Overdue
  • Owner – Make sure to assign ownership of each action so that there is clear accountability for delivery.  There’s often a temptation to have shared ownership but this can often create confusion.  It’s always best to have ‘one throat to choke’ and let that person assemble the right people to help them drive the action forward.
  • Start Date – reflecting the date you or your team member plans to start a task helps you to distinguish order and duration of tasks.  It’s also helpful when visualizing the critical path for the project.
  • End Date – The end date is really the due date.  What date has been committed for this task or action?
  • Gant Chart – This is a nice to have but it makes visualizing delivery of project actions much easier.  Having an at-a-glance view of the project timeline is very helpful when juggling multiple tasks.

How to Build a Simple Project Plan

Now that we've highlights the key areas to include in your project plan, the first question you might be asking is how do we come up with all of that content?  A common approach leveraged by project managers is known as a Work Breakdown Structure.  Simply, it means breaking down a list of all the actions or tasks that need to be completed as a part of delivering the project.  This is often best accomplished by gathering the project participants or key stakeholders to generate ideas for what steps would be involved.  Generally the more involved the group is, the better you’ll be able to cover all your bases as you determine what to consider in order to drive the project forward.

Once the team has brainstormed all of the actions that need to be taken or questions that need to be answered to complete the project, you will then want to group the tasks together.  Some groupings or categories to start with include, technology changes, internal training or communication needs, change management planning, updates to policies and procedures, changes to vendor practices, and customer communications.  The categories you come up with will certainly depend on the scope of your project and the specific actions the team generates.

Using the inputs from your work breakdown structure brainstorming, you’ll now need to actually build the document outlining your simple project plan.  Begin by listing out each of the actions you've brainstormed in order of the categories you came up with.  The easiest approach is to leverage Microsoft Excel including columns for all of the criteria listed above.  Optionally, you can also list out each day for the duration of the project to give yourself a visual gant chart to follow the progress of the project.  This step can be time consuming to create so it is optional or you can find simple templates to make the chore faster.

The next step is to look at the actions in terms of order.  What needs to occur first?  Are there any actions that can’t be completed until other steps occur first?  This view will help you to build an ordered project plan so that when you assign timelines, you’ll be sure to tackle the most important or time sensitive actions first.

Now that you have a sense of the sequence of tasks, you will assign owners to the actions and establish the timelines.  When initially drafting the plan, it’s helpful to plug in tentative dates and owners. Try to estimate how long particular actions might take to complete thinking about the amount of time the owner will have to invest.  If they’ll also have other priorities, you’ll need to consider how quickly a short task can be done if they’re juggling their day job at the same time.  These timelines and owners will only be a start.  You’ll want to validate and refine the information later with the team but it helps to come to the group with a proposal rather than trying to build it out from scratch with a large group.  Changes can always be made.

The last step is to sit down with the project team and review the draft you've generated.  You’ll use this time to adjust action owners, timelines, and add any tasks or actions you might have missed.

As you can see, project planning for non project managers doesn't have to be a daunting task.  When approached as collaboratively building a list of steps it becomes much easier to create a simple project plan that will help you and the project team to move the initiative forward.