Channel Your Inner Project Manager: The 8 Key Project Planning Elements

Your project's success depends on proper project planning. But what exactly does a project plan like?

2 workers renovating a house reviewing project planning elements

Project planning is crucial for any project’s success, but planning does not exist in a vacuum. It’s part of the project life cycle that consists of 4 distinct phases: Initiation, planning, execution, and closure.

Planning is essential for several reasons because it ensures that:

  • Projects run smoothly, according to a project management plan
  • You deliver projects on time and on budget
  • The project scope is clearly defined
  • Everyone has a mutual understanding of project objectives
  • Everyone understands their roles in achieving those objectives
  • You’re able to manage time, costs, and risks better
  • You have an early warning system in place: By monitoring progress against a project plan, you can identify when there are deviations that could hurt the project
  • You get all your thoughts down on paper and can break down the project into manageable chunks

Of course, project execution often depends on how good your project planning process is. The good news is that planning isn’t hard. Simply follow the comprehensive project management approaches used by project managers.

You just have to make sure you include these 8 elements of effective project planning—tailored to you, the business owner.

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    The 8 Essential Elements of Effective Project Planning

    The details are important for any project. But the problem is that when you start any new project, pinning down those details can be difficult—which can overwhelm even the best project manager. This can prevent the project from getting off the ground in the first place.

    The better approach is to focus on basic milestones and project goals. To help you with this, here are 8 essential elements of a project plan to incorporate into the project planning process.

    1. The Identification of Stakeholder Needs

    Stakeholders include anyone affected by the project, such as end users, project managers, employees, project sponsors, and clients. Regardless, you need to consider all stakeholders and their needs.

    Identify the stakeholders, meet with them, and write down and prioritize their needs. If you’re still struggling to prioritize, use Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix, which helps you prioritize based on urgency and importance.

    However, when meeting with stakeholders, make sure you lead a structured conversation for better stakeholder management. You don’t want your stakeholders to lead you astray, which may mean that at the end of the meeting, you’re left with a long list of desires irrelevant to the project.

    You want to keep it on point and list only what’s essential for the project. By all means, acknowledge other concerns and demands but let them know you don’t think those points are relevant right now. Instead, suggest to “park” them for later on.

    For example, let’s say you closed a deal to tackle the content marketing strategy for an online business that needs more traffic, leads, and sales. You know you first need to drive traffic, build a list of prospects, and then focus on nurturing them through the funnel with various content assets.

    But the founder doesn’t know the ins and outs of content marketing and instead pushes you for immediate deadlines of when you will meet specific sales targets. It’s your job to rein in the situation and gently tell the founder that while sales are most definitely a priority, you first need to grow organic traffic through blogging and build an email list you can sell to. So, for now, you would prioritize content creation and prospect building ahead of sales.

    2. Smart Project Objectives

    From the stakeholders’ needs, create project objectives. The objectives need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Consider these 2 objectives:

    1. Increase website traffic
    2. Increase website traffic to a client’s site by 50% on Aug. 21

    The second objective is far more specific and gives you a clear projected path of what you want to achieve. You can use it as a benchmark to measure how well you’ve increased traffic.

    The objective “increase website traffic” would imply that a 1% increase in traffic would be a success. And I’m sure that’s not what you or your client want.

    3. Clear Project Deliverables and Timelines

    What specific products or services do you need to deliver to your client? These are your project deliverables and you should set a due date for each deliverable.

    For example, a deliverable for “increase website traffic” may be to “provide monthly traffic reports,” or even “improve on-page and off-page SEO (search engine optimization).”

    On-page SEO refers to optimizing your website’s pages to improve SEO. Off-page SEO refers to methods you can use to improve ranking in search engines beyond your site, such as social media promotion.

    With each deliverable, include a due date so you have something to work toward.

    4. A Detailed Project Schedule

    Your project schedule includes the deliverables, tasks for each deliverable, due dates for each task and deliverable, and who will complete them. Here’s a breakdown of each:

    Assign Tasks to Each Deliverable

    It’ll be easier to meet your project objectives by breaking up each deliverable into manageable project tasks. Think of the entire project as a cake. Each slice is a deliverable, and each bite of a slice is a small task.

    For example, improving on-page SEO is your deliverable, a task may be to produce 4 blog posts per month as part of your blogging strategy.

    Specify Due Dates for Tasks and Who’s Responsible

    Make sure you specify the due dates for those tasks and who will be completing them (if the stakeholders are just you and the client, all you have to do is specify what both your roles are).

    By clarifying who’s responsible, you avoid any misunderstandings later on. For example, when creating content, you may also need to source images. Failing to specify who’s responsible may mean it doesn’t get done because both think the other is doing it.

    Identify Dependencies

    You also want to look at dependencies. Are there specific project tasks that depend on the completion of others? For example, you may need client approval on a design before taking it to the printer.

    Or, you may need your client to review the website copy at certain checkpoints during the project to ensure the changes align with what they want. Make these dependencies clear, so your client understands their role in keeping the project moving.

    Create the Project Schedules

    You can brainstorm with project team members on a whiteboard and paper or use online collaboration apps such as Trello or FreshBooks for managing projects. These apps are particularly handy if you’re leading a remote team.

    For example, Trello lets you organize projects by combining lists, cards, and boards. Boards can be your project deliverables and the listed tasks assigned to certain people. As you complete tasks, you can move Trello cards through the project process.

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    5. Project Costs That Help Identify Shortfalls

    Any project plan should specify exactly how much money you need for the duration of the project. Naturally, this will vary from project to project. For example, suppose you’re a building contractor. In that case, you’ll need more cash to tide you over for the duration of the project compared to a website designer, photographer, or freelance copywriter who has fewer upfront costs.

    To help you get this cash, you can use ways to get more working capital, like requesting an upfront deposit, invoice financing, or a bank loan. But be careful. It often takes a while before bank loans are even approved, so plan ahead.

    While creatives may not have project costs that run as high as building contractors, they still need to plan for their cash flow in advance. There’s nothing worse than working on a big project for a client—that involves a considerable investment of time—only to have to wait months to get paid. In these instances, asking for an upfront deposit may be wise before starting work.

    Throughout any project—especially those large ones that can last months, it’s also vital to have a plan for monitoring and controlling costs. This will allow you to remain on budget and may include regular project team meetings and meetings with the client.

    These meetings are essential because going over your project budget is sometimes unavoidable. But by tracking and communicating with clients, you’ll meet less resistance when you tell them you’re over budget and that they may need to pay more.

    6. Defined Roles and Responsibilities

    Beyond specifying who’s responsible for each task, you also need to define all roles. These include indicating who’s responsible for the entire project and each deliverable, what client roles are, and who reports to who.

    For example, a web designer may be responsible for producing wireframes and designs, and report to the creative director who manages the website and all designs.

    Or a content writer may be responsible for producing blog posts and reports to the content editor, who manages a team of writers and the content schedule. The content director, in turn, reports to the project director, and so on.

    Defining roles, responsibilities, and reporting structures ensure everyone knows what’s required of them and remains accountable throughout the project planning phase.

    But remember, no matter how defined the roles and responsibilities are, you need regular check-ins to ensure everything is on track. These check-ins may take the form of meetings, weekly reports, or short daily conversations using your favorite online project management system. We discuss this in more detail when talking about your communication plan (Step 7).

    Certain checkpoints in a project may also need client approval before you can move on to the next stage. For example, if you’re designing a site, you may need to check in with the client once a week to see that the changes you’ve made align with what they want. Your client should understand that their input plays a role in moving the project forward.

    7. A Communication Plan That Keeps the Project Moving Forward

    The success of any project hinges on good communication. You should communicate when there are project changes. You should also let the client know when you need their input. All of this forms part of your communication plan, which should specify the following:

    • How often you’ll communicate to project stakeholders. Will it be daily, weekly, or monthly?
    • The updates the client expects to receive: Are these face-to-face meetings, weekly status reports sent via email, or even telephone calls?
    • How often the client expects to receive these updates.
    • The project checkpoints that require client input before the project can proceed.

    To help you with your communication plan, it pays to have an online project management system in place. Project management software can provide that system. More on that next.

    project management

    8. The Right Process and Systems for Project Management

    All 7 previous points are an essential part of the project planning process but an often overlooked one is the process:

    • What procedures will you use to communicate with project team members?
    • What systems will you use for project management?
    • Will you give clients visibility into the project?
    • Should they have access to your project planning tools?
    • How will you ensure you deliver what your client wants?

    Now, you can create all these project schedules in a spreadsheet and manage projects and communication via email and telephone. The problem is that this often leads to miscommunication. That’s not to mention the endless digging through your inbox to find emails and files. And let’s not forget the challenges of running a remote team.

    Thankfully, there’s a better way: Online collaboration apps or project management software. Besides project management tools like Trello, platforms like FreshBooks—a cloud accounting platform that lets you track and manage projects, bill clients to get paid, and even track your time—allow you to:

    • Invite employees and clients to collaborate—effectively giving them access to your project planning tools
    • Store all your information in one place, so you don’t have to spend time searching for project files
    • Track your time against specific projects and clients so you can track how your project progresses from start to finish without all the manual input

    Master the Project Planning Process Today

    Project planning doesn’t operate in a vacuum and is a crucial part of the project management lifecycle. It helps you better manage your time, project resources, and project team. It also ensures everyone is on the same page.

    But, project success will depend on a solid project management plan, which includes these 8 essential project planning elements:

    1. Identification of stakeholder’s needs
    2. Smart project objectives
    3. Clear deliverables and deadlines
    4. A detailed project schedule
    5. Clearly defined roles
    6. Project costs
    7. A communication plan
    8. The right systems and processes

    Are you a business owner running multiple projects? How are you using these elements to plan your projects?

    This post was updated in December 2022.

    Nick Darlington

    Written by Nick Darlington, Freelance Contributor

    Posted on December 1, 2017