Project Planning Checklist: 5 Steps Every Project Plan Should Follow

on August 18, 2016

There are two types of people in the world: those that plan and those that “play it by ear.”

For us list-makers and recipe-followers, it can be frustrating when someone doesn’t put as much careful consideration into their plans as we do. While they call it neurosis, we bask in the joy of planning ahead.

Luckily, if you’re a project manager, chances are good that you’ve found like-minded people. In fact, of the thousands of project management (PM) software buyers we speak with each year, 86 percent are looking for a system to assist with project planning.

That’s why we’ve created this project planning checklist. Whether you’re just starting out and looking for an explanation of project planning best practices, or you’re a seasoned pro who simply loves to check steps off as you accomplish them, this list can be your guide.

Each section of this checklist breaks down an important step of the planning process and outlines specific actions you should take to ensure your project plan is on track for success.

Don’t forget to download the checklist and follow along as we explain each step in detail.

Download Checklist

Form the Project Initiative

Projects are launched to accomplish one of two things:

  • Solve a problem
  • Achieve a strategic business objective

Defining the main purpose of your project, i.e., the expected outcome, helps you to craft an appropriate roadmap to achieve that goal.

This involves estimating and setting baselines for the project’s scope, budget and timeline. Referred to as the “triple constraints,” changes to one of these areas will impact the others and it’s important to plan for inevitable variances.

For example, adding requirements (scope) after the fact necessitates an increase in cost and/or time. If a deadline gets moved up, you’ll have to increase the budget or reduce the scope to meet the new timeline.

PM Triple Constraints

Next, identify your stakeholders and what role they play in the project. For example, the project team is in charge of executing on deliverables, but the project sponsor is in charge of securing and allocating funding.

Additionally, it’s important that each stakeholder is aware of and in agreement with which baselines will be the most important indicators of project success. As the saying goes: “Fast, good or cheap. Pick any two.”

For a deeper analysis of project stakeholder roles, check out our recent article outlining several best practices for identifying and communicating with stakeholders.

Create the Work Breakdown Structure

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is going to help you refine your initial baselines for scope, budget and timeline. As such, it’s important to include stakeholders in the process.

Creating the WBS involves:

  • Identifying all project requirements
  • Dividing each requirement into component deliverables
  • Outlining all tasks required to complete deliverables
  • Estimating the time required to complete each task
  • Determining the critical path


Steps to Creating a Work Breakdown Structure


In order to create an accurate WBS, you’ll have to consider resources as well. However, we’ve made “scheduling resources” our next section to dive a little deeper into what this entails.

Schedule Resources

“Resources” is a term which commonly refers to skilled employees. When planning a project, it’s important to consider the budgetary aspects of scheduling these employees.

For example, your project might call for a deliverable to be built by a software development team. A custom development firm might be able to complete the deliverable in less time than your in-house development team, but at a higher cost.

As such, there are several factors that go into scheduling resources for a project, including:

Identify key resources

  • What skill sets are needed to complete each deliverable?
  • Can each requirement be met by an in-house team, or should a project phase be outsourced?

Consider resource constraints

  • What is your team’s bandwidth? (Current and future availability.)
  • How does pay rate and project billing factor into budget restrictions?

It’s nearly impossible to answer these questions and plan effectively without a robust resource management tool. These systems can help you weigh project financials and staff projects more effectively by assigning employees to projects based on skill set and availability.

Some tools, such as Replicon PPM, even allow you to assign a “placeholder resource” to block out a role you know you’ll need, even when you don’t have a resource immediately available.

You can go back and assign a staff member to that role when their schedule opens up, but this functionality allows you to appropriately forecast the project’s budget.

Assigning placeholder resources in Replicon

Do you have feedback about Replicon PPM? Visit our reviews page and click the “write a review” button at the top to rate the platform.

Develop the Risk Management Plan

Once you’ve created the WBS and assigned project resources, it’s time to focus on your risk management plan. Although you won’t be able to account for every possible divergence from the project plan before launch, you can outline what your general approach and mitigation strategies will be for common or likely risks.

To do this, you’ll need to:

  • Identify known risks and their potential impact on the project
  • Perform risk analysis (qualitative and quantitative)
  • Plan risk responses, i.e., contingency plans
If you’d like to learn more about creating a risk management plan, download our free e-book. We spoke with the experts at the Project Management Institute (PMI) and several certified risk management specialists, and with their expertise, compiled the best practices for creating an effective risk management strategy.

Choose a Communication/Collaboration Platform

An important, and often overlooked, aspect of project planning is deciding on a communication and collaboration tool before the project is launched. Choosing a solution after your client asks for access to a client portal or your executives ask to see an update on the project tracking dashboard will result in a headache that could easily have been avoided.

Different stakeholders will likely prefer different methods of communication. For example, you might conduct a daily standup with your project team either in person or over a videoconferencing tool like Skype, but submit a project status report via email to executives once a week.

Collaboration software will increase transparency into project performance and help keep everyone on the same page. Not to mention it can save time by cutting down on your manual data entry.

Critical capabilities to look for include:

Gantt charts Data visualization tool showing tasks as bar charts across a calendar. During project planning, useful for visualizing the project schedule, highlighting task dependencies and determining the critical path. During project execution, useful for tracking task progress and completion rate (task bars are shaded to show the percent complete).
Communication tools Includes activity/notification centers, chat streams, user discussion forums and other applications designed to facilitate collaboration among users. Helps centralize project communication and encourages teams to work together to solve issues.
Dashboards Provides a high-level overview of project progress, showing if the project is on track, or ahead of or behind schedule (and budget). These tools automatically capture data and collate the information in an easy to scan display.
Reporting Gives a detailed snapshot of project performance and metrics including profit margins/ROI, estimated vs. actual budget expenditures and overall project health. Systems with analytics capabilities offer insights into trends across teams and projects.


To help you compare collaboration tools, Software Advice created this interactive Buyer’s Guide. Filter products according to number of reviews, user rating, price and more. It’s important to vet products prior to purchase, so ask vendors about scheduling a free demo. Then, be sure to get input from employees and stakeholders about what tools fit their workflows best.

Next Steps

The best project managers don’t consider their projects one-off events. They take the lessons learned from each project closeout and apply them to next initiative.

You can apply that same logic to this checklist: Follow these project planning steps, evaluate your success and modify your process according to the outcome.

If you have feedback on our checklist, we’d love to have it! Email me at and let me know if you have questions about any of the steps included here or if you have suggestions to improve it.

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