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Creating a project plan? Use these tools to get started

By: Leanne Armstrong

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If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in a directionless assignment with no end goal in sight, you’ll appreciate the importance of creating a project plan. Without proper planning, even the most inspired project kick-off can quickly deteriorate into missed deadlines, budget overruns, and a disorderly, misaligned team.

As an integral part of the project management process, creating a project plan lays the foundation for guiding and controlling the execution of your mission. And the best way to create a plan that works is with the right format, templates, and tools for the project at hand.

Creating a Project Plan 101

Creating your project plan involves:

  • Choosing a visual project plan format that suits your needs.
  • Using project planning templates to help guide the process.
  • Picking project planning tools that mesh with your mission.

The importance of using the right project plan format

A project plan is basically a document that outlines the scope, goals, and deliverables for your project. Project planning formats vary widely, however.

Depending on the size and complexity of the undertaking, you could, for example:

  • scribble your project plan on the back of a napkin,
  • lay it out using Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, or
  • take advantage of a dynamic, visual platform like mind mapping software

One of the reasons for creating a project plan is to define the work involved and identify who will carry out which tasks, and when.

But your plan does much more than serve as a timeline.

And that makes employing the right format, in conjunction with flexible templates, charts, diagrams, and other project planning tools, essential for breaking out and addressing every detail of your project’s resources, risks, budget, and status.

3 tips for creating a project plan that works

The planning stage is arguably the most important part of managing a project. During the project planning process, you’re meeting with stakeholders to define the scope of your project, while hammering out details and getting buy-in from your team.

To successfully carry out the 6 project planning steps discussed in our previous article, you’ll ideally need to find and adopt an approach that lets you:

  • work with a single, centralized information repository for the duration of your project’s lifecycle,
  • capture and share new ideas, information, and feedback from everyone involved in real time, and
  • come up with useful solutions faster, while keeping an eye on the big picture

The 3 tips we discuss here will pave the way to project planning success, whether you’re launching a new product, putting together a training program, or writing an employee handbook.

1.      Choose a visual project plan format

Using a visual project plan format makes it easy to gather all the data and creative input for your assignment into one expandable, refine-able project map.

Creating a project plan with the help of animated visual aids like flowcharts and other digital diagrams is not only useful for managing information overload, it will reward you with a graphic overview of the detail and status for every time-critical task attached to your mission.

Taking a visual approach to planning as early as your kick-off meeting also means being able to:

  • better structure knowledge and information as it comes in,
  • filter and communicate project priorities more efficiently, and
  • establish and assign tasks and their associated resources on the go

By transforming unstructured ideas into organized visual maps, you can give everyone involved in your project a clearer understanding of their objectives and greater control of their time.

And as an added bonus, visualizing your project plan format will make it easier to express technical concepts or language to team members and project stakeholders, regardless of their background.

2.      Use project plan templates to help guide the process

Project plan templates come in all shapes and sizes – from budgeting spreadsheets that help predict and track costs, to process maps and status report forms.

Using a detailed, repeatable template like a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), for example, is a great way to break out any size project into smaller, more manageable portions.

As a task-oriented project plan template, a WBS empowers you with:

  • a detailed outline of all the work necessary to complete your assignment,
  • a road map for each activity included in your workflow, and
  • an accurate, detailed estimate of the time, cost, and resources required to carry out your project successfully

Check out the template below for an example of a WBS in MindManager.

Whether it takes the form of a chart, graph, or spreadsheet, however, one thing every project plan template has in common is the support it provides in helping you formulate and carry out a workable strategy.

3. Pick project planning tools that mesh with your mission

Some of the best options out there today include the following.

Microsoft Office:

Common project planning tools like Microsoft Excel, SharePoint, Outlook, and Word have a lot to offer when it comes to the task management component of creating a project plan – and they’re often sufficient for simpler jobs.

Where these tools tend to fall short, however, is in providing a single, cohesive, interactive project platform.

On the upside, mind mapping project planning software like MindManager integrates easily with the Microsoft suite of applications, allowing you to:

  • seamlessly transition your projects,
  • save time by reusing data previously captured in other formats, and
  • link visual map views with outside project planning tools

MindManager dashboards, meanwhile, make it easy to pinpoint and share where you’re at with your project by letting you quickly convert and export your work into automatically formatted PowerPoint, Word, or PDF documents.

Gantt charts:

Gantt charts are one of the most essential project planning tools. These horizontal bar charts visually display your project plan over time so you can clearly see:

  • the team member or resource assigned to each activity,
  • the start date, duration, and status for each task, and
  • the call-out dates for pivotal decisions and deliverables

Unlike static versions, however, digital Gantt charts – like the kind built into MindManager – are highly interactive.

Not only do these powerful tools make it easy to connect tasks that need to happen in a certain order, they let you flag delayed or completed tasks right on your project map so your progress can be readily viewed by decision-makers and stakeholders.

Visual mapping software:

At the end of the day, using a project planning tool like visual mapping software is the most efficient way to combine the templates and resources you need into one versatile project plan format.

Inputting your project information into a mind mapping program like MindManager, for example, lets you leverage a variety of data sources – including text files, graphics, calculations, links, contacts, and appointments.

And because MindManager is fast, visual, transparent, and intuitive, it’s perfect for any business professional (read: most of us) who lacks the time or training necessary to work with a complex project management system.

MindManager works well as a single-person, organizational tool for collecting ideas and generating project to-do lists. But with built-in project plan templates, and advanced features like tags, icons, and filtering, it also streamlines collaboration by making it easy for you and your team to:

  • brainstorm and categorize ideas, while visually capturing meeting notes, and
  • organize and navigate large volumes of information, while assigning resources and tracking deadlines and budgets

Through its centralized dashboard, MindManager also provides linking and attachment features that give you unlimited access to much of your core business data.

You can import key files and append new working documents directly into your project maps, then update your workflow by adding or editing information through the dashboard as your project evolves.

Remember: the more complex the performance required, the more crucial your planning becomes.

Alongside organizational, accountability, and problem-solving benefits, creating a project plan lends a predictive quality to your efforts. And that can prove especially valuable when you’re working with a lengthy project timeline or expensive resources.

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