What is Project Planning? Steps, Process, Principles, Elements

  • Post last modified:7 July 2021
  • Reading time:12 mins read

What is Project Planning?

Project planning is a rational determination of how to initiate, sustain, and terminate a project. After the initiation stage, the project is planned to an appropriate level of detail.

The main purpose is to plan time, cost and resources adequately to estimate the work needed and to effectively manage risk during project execution.

As with the initiation process group, a failure to adequately plan greatly reduces the project’s chances of successfully accomplishing its goals.

Project planning requires an in-depth analysis and structuring of the following activities:

  • Formulation of project goals
  • Identification of project deliverables
  • Creation of project schedules
  • Creation of supporting plans

At the end of the project planning stage, the following are identified:

  • Obstacles in the project
  • Minimum time required for the completion of the project
  • Major deliverables of the project
  • Work required for the completion of the project
  • People involved in the project and their key responsibilities
  • Required milestones of the project

Project Planning Principles

  1. Purpose
  2. Multiple passes required
  3. A project plan is NOT a Microsoft Project file
  4. Give me one
  5. Proactive project management
  6. Stay down from the mountain


The purpose of project planning is to develop a plan that enables the project to be executed and controlled

Multiple passes required

Project planning is not a one-time activity performed at the beginning of a project. For starters, it generally takes several iterations to get to a comprehensive plan given the multitude of inputs that must be integrated and the number of stakeholders that need to agree on the plan.

In addition, as things happen and we learn more, plans will need to be adjusted and details ironed out as the project moves along.

A project plan is NOT a Microsoft Project file

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we are clear on a few key terms. A project plan is not a project schedule or a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). A project plan is an all-encompassing document used as the basis for controlling and executing a project.

Give me one

The planning exercise and the planning team must have control over one of the traditional project success factors (scope, time, cost, or performance). Senior management can set all but one of these factors—just not all of them.

Proactive project management

Effective planning enables a “proactive” project management approach. Before the execution of the project gets underway, we ask the questions and determine the approaches we will take to manage the project and stakeholder expectations regarding project communications, stakeholder responsibilities, quality management, risks, responses to specific performance variances, procurement management, and project team management.

Stay down from the mountain

Project planning is not the time for the top-down, Mount Olympus approach to management. Project planning is the time for questions, facilitation, interaction, and feedback.

Specifically, you need to conduct a stakeholder analysis on all your management and customer stakeholders to validate the project definition elements, understand their expectations and communication needs, and to review procedures for dealing with critical issues, risks, change requests, and performance variances.

Project Planning Process

There are ideally 6 steps in project planning process

  1. Project Scope Planning
  2. Delivery Schedule Planning
  3. Project Resources Planning
  4. Project Cost Planning
  5. Project Quality Planning
  6. Supporting Plans

Project Scope Planning

Any project is expected to provide its stakeholders with certain outcome, which is commonly termed as project deliverables. These project deliverables depend on the scope of the project.

Analogically, defining project scope is like drawing a map. In the map, the boundaries are drawn to indicate stretch/ extent of a given territory; similarly project scope outlines the extent of project deliverables.

Essentially, project scope is the definition of what the project is expected to achieve and specify the budget of both time and cost that needs to be provisioned to create the project deliverables before the project gets closed.

Project Deliverables

To define project scope, one needs to refer project requirements. The project planner needs to list down project deliverable items unambiguously stating whether they are ‘In Scope’ or ‘Not in Scope’. So, project scope is about outlining the project deliverables. Based on project scope, project planner(s) create(s) work breakdown structure (WBS).

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

The WBS is a breakdown/ decomposition of project work into distinct work items at higher level. These work items are aligned with the project objective and can help the project team to create expected deliverables. Generally, the project team can refer to this work item hierarchy to decide whether any given task is included in WBS or not.

Triangular Constraints (TQR)

The project scope is generally constrained, with respect to following aspects

  1. Time
  2. Quality
  3. Resources

If you stretch any corner of the triangle, the triangle gets distorted; similarly, any change in the scope of the project has a direct effect on (either any or all) of time, quality and resources of a given project. Vice versa, any change in time or cost or resource can make the project scope altered.

And each corner of this triangle, in turn, has cost implication e.g. any addition of resources to project can increase the cost of the project, any delay in delivery can increase cost of project, any compromise can quality can have further effect on cost of the project.

Hence cost of the project is directly dependent on project scope & project scope in turn is dependent on project delivery time, quality parameters & resources assignment.

Delivery Schedule Planning

Once project scope is determined and work breakdown structure (WBS) is created, the next step is to create delivery timeline. For each of the deliverable work item identified in the work breakdown structure (WBS), project planner needs to identify list of activities need to perform.


Activities as mentioned above, become a basis for estimation, scheduling, execution, and monitoring and controlling of the project work. For each of these activities he/she needs to figure out

  • How long will it take to complete each activity (days, weeks)?
  • What kind of resource(s) – required for its completion (skill set, experience, etc.)?

Based on the estimate of efforts required to carry out each activity, one can sum up to get duration required for each deliverable. Thus working backward, project delivery timeline can be tweaked further to provide better estimates


A milestone marks a significant event in the project. Generally, project sponsors would refer to list of milestones to trace project delivery in respect of timeline & cost overrun.

Gantt chart

The visual representation of project schedule can be viewed through a Gantt chart. Many portfolio managers & project sponsors find it easy to work with Gantt chart. Since referring the Gantt chart for a given project, project manager/ project planner & other stakeholder can optimize/ change the schedule further.

Generally, this is where project sponsors start pushing for aggressive project deadline which might have been indicated/ agreed earlier and sometimes it becomes a real problem.

In such case, the reasonable way out is to consult the project sponsor team & provide the details of the project schedule. If there are differences, highly detailed project schedule can help you – to make your point.

Based on the discussion, you may agree to the following options:

  1. Reschedule project delivery timeline [Time Implication]
  2. Deploy additional resources [Resource Implication]
  3. Change the scope of project [Scope Implication]
  4. Enforce additional/ lesser Quality checks [Quality Implication]

Five steps to create a delivery schedule

  1. Define Tasks/ Activities
  2. Tasks/ Activities Sequencing
  3. Resources Requirement Estimation
  4. Task Durations Estimation
  5. Schedule Development

Define Tasks/ Activities

Identification of individual & specific tasks to be performed to create the project deliverables

Tasks/ Activities Sequencing

It is to take care of identification & establishing relationships among the project activities e.g. Product filling activity to start after package labelling activity.

Resources Requirement Estimation

This process carry out estimation of the type (skill set/ experience, etc.) and quantities of material, people, equipment, etc. required to perform any given activity.

Task Durations Estimation

The process of approximating the number of work periods needed to complete individual activities with estimated resources. One can arrive at these estimates based on either of

  • Expert’s judgement (consulting Subject Matter Expert)
  • Three Point Estimate (Most likely, Optimist, Less Likely)
  • Parametric Estimation (length & height of compound wall, number of lines of code)

Schedule Development

This is a critical process wherein the project planner analyses sequences of activities, for each activity what are the: durations required, resource required, and constraints arising due to scheduling. The outcome from this exercise is a project schedule. Once project schedule is agreed by important stakeholders, it becomes a baseline for the given project.

These five steps will help us create project schedule and it would become a baseline for a given project. The project schedule may change as project progress; this change can be attributed to change in scope, deliverables, quality and risk aspects of the project.

Project Resources Planning

It is the people who make the project work hence it is critical to plan for project team. But project resource is not just about the people to be involved in the project, rather materials, equipment required for successful completion of the project.

Having mentioned this, generally resource planning tends to revolve about people/staffing management.

Human Resource Plan

This plan tries to answer following questions but rather precise details:

  1. What kinds of people are required to complete the project – necessary qty, competencies?
  2. What should they do – roles & responsibilities?
  3. Whom will they report to?

Thus human resource plan identifies and document the staffing requirements – skillset, roles, responsibilities and also establish the reporting structure of the project resources. It also provides the staffing plan which specifies timeline of acquisition & release of staff.

What can we expect from human resource plan?

  • Roles & responsibilities
  • Role
  • Responsibility
  • Competency
  • Authority

The human resource planning analyses:

  • Current human resources
  • Forecasts future requirements
  • Identifies areas where there are gaps
  • Implements a plan to tighten up these gaps

Project Cost Planning

Cost planning exercise helps to baseline the overall project budget in terms of money so that project sponsors & project steering committee can agree on project delivery schedule as well as the payment schedule. It tries to identify cost elements to be consumed during the project lifecycles such as:

  • Monetary resources requirement (people, machinery, material, equipment, space, etc.)
  • Provisions for risk management (people, machinery, material, equipment, space, etc.)

What can we expect from Project Cost plan?

Cost estimates per activity

Since activity/task form the basis for estimation of effort, duration required; project cost is generally is summed up based on cost estimates of the activities involved. Just like the effort/duration estimate of an activity/task, cost estimate of activity provides quantifiable assessment expressed in terms of currency like INR, Euro, USD, etc.

It is expected to capture cost implication of:

  • People, equipment, facilities, etc. required to complete given activity
  • Inflation, exchange rates applicable for context of the activit

Factors considered for estimates

This section will document how cost is determined/ what elements formed the basis of cost estimation – such as

  • What all assumptions are made?
  • What all constraints are applied?
  • What all parameters formed as a basis of estimate.
  • What is the confidence level of estimate? and Why?

Project Quality Planning

There are various known approaches to ensure project quality – some of these are

  1. Six Sigma (6 σ)
  2. Cost of Quality (CoQ)
  3. Total Quality Management (TQM)
  4. Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA)
  5. International Organization for Standardization 9001, etc.

All of these approaches essentially align with principles of project management such as careful planning in advance save a lot later, hence this section becomes necessary.

What does project quality planning involves?

To create project quality plan, project planner need to identify what are the quality requirements of the project, which all standards are we supposed to comply with and in what manner. Surely project quality plans undergoes changes just as the master project plan.

What can we expect a project quality plan to highlight?

  • Quality Process & Policies
  • Cost-BenefitAnalysis
  • Cost of Quality
  • Quality Metrics
  • Quality Checklist
  • Control Charts

Supporting Plans

Risk Management Plan

Project risk management is about assessing future uncertainties which can have potential impact on project objectives and the exercise of creating risk management plan, prepares team for effectively managing those uncertainties.

What can we expect from project risk management plan?

  • Risk Identification
    • Identification process
    • Risk Categories

  • Risk Assessment
    • Risk probability and impact
    • Risk Tolerance

  • Risk Responses

  • Risk Management
    • Mechanism
    • Roles and responsibilities
    • Budget Provisioning
    • Risk Tracking

Communication Plan

Projects get successfully delivery only when people work together. A project team can work together only when they know what they should do and they would know this, only when they are informed about it. That’s the precise reason why organizations should have communication plan.

Communication plan is about establishing appropriate channels to let correct information flow top-down as well as bottom-up manner.

Identifying Project Stakeholders

The first thing that needs to be done at the time of creating communication plan for a project is, to identify stakeholders of the project and their information relevance (extent of information & time of receiving/sharing information).

Stakeholders could be customers (internal/external), vendors, employees, partners, etc. and of course at different levels in the project organization with differential interest, importance & influence over project.

Planning project communication

It is important for a project manager to categorize project stakeholders & identify apt communication channels as per the stakeholders’ category. Such arrangement will save project managers’ time during project execution while dealing with amount of information he/she receives & has to communicate.

Project manager need to be clear about how information would be gathered & shared:

  • Receiving information: should it be through meeting (e.g. User Acceptance Test meeting with customer) or over email (collect status of activities/issues over email or s/w tool from team members )or some other means
  • Sharing Information: should it be done through meeting (e.g. stakeholder meeting) & then sharing MoM mail or over email (project activities are to be completed by team members)

Procurement Plan

Project procurement plan documents purchase policy illustrating purchase process, buy/lease/rent decisions, vendor selection, negotiation, financial concurrence, duration, legal concurrence, etc. Also it should chalk out roles authorized to make tendering process, financial & legal concurrence, and approval/rejection decision.

What can we expect in procurement plan?

Apart from the above factions project planner needs to specify how procurement statement of work (SoW) or RFQ/RFT to be organized or tracked, sourcing criterion, vendor selection criteria as well document the make-buy decision approach & escalation matrix for the same.

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