How to Create a Project Plan to Set Realistic Expectations

“Plans are useless. But planning is indispensable.”

This quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower may be confusing at first, but it’s meant to remind us that planning never stops, no matter the project. The reality of what a plan is and what planning looks like often differ greatly.

In a project plan, moving parts like resource allocation, budget constraints, or inefficiencies change over time. The adjustments needed can turn a project upside down before you realize it. It’s best to see a project plan as a start rather than an end of strategic planning. 

Project management software helps a lot in this continuous approach. But before heading toward technology, you should start with a reliable project plan. 

Your project plan is a formal document that guides your team as it executes each step and tries to control different variables. The document includes known or potential risks, resources, scope, budget, milestones, and timeline. Companies often track these elements on project management software to get an insightful overview of a project’s present state.

At a high level, a project plan answers these questions: 

  • What needs to be done?
  • How can we achieve the goal and meet deadlines?
  • Who are the people collaborating on this project, and what do they do?
  • When are our critical project stages?

The project plan answers these questions and gets everyone on the same page regarding roles, deadlines, and tasks. 

Why are project plans necessary?

A project plan sets clear goals to avoid confusion and frustration. It helps manage scope creep, which makes a project’s requirements too numerous to fulfill. 


of professionals lack the right technology to collaborate on informal projects. 

Source: Wellingtone

A project plan helps you foresee challenges and make adjustments to avoid them. The better you plan, the better results turn out to be. It has an overall impact on a project’s outcomes and efficiency. 

However, as a project manager, you might find that not all of your stakeholders see the value of a project plan; some would prefer that you skip it and jump into work. But as a lead, it’s your responsibility to get their buy-in, making navigating and accomplishing the project’s goals easier. 

Make sure they know that a good project plan: 

  • Holds stakeholders accountable. Everyone understands expectations and processes. The plan keeps the team honest about what is happening and encourages them to resolve issues promptly.
  • Monitors the project’s goals and scope. When new tasks creep in, it’s easy to lose sight of the original objectives. Spelling out the work you need to complete in a time-based plan puts project goals front and center so the project scope stays intact. ‍
  • Minimizes conflicts. Plans organize tasks in a way that shows stakeholders who’s responsible for what. With a project plan, you can see your team’s work distribution among multiple projects and create timelines accordingly. 
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Project plan vs. project charter

A project plan, or a project management plan, is a detailed document of a project’s scope and objectives. It includes execution steps for managing a project from start to finish and keeping all stakeholders aligned. A project plan determines the milestones, deadlines, and responsibilities, giving you a thoughtful beginning to kick off a project. 

A project charter, also known as a project definition, is an official record of a planned project. It outlines the project’s scope, objectives, goals, stakeholders, and teams. A project charter is a prerequisite for a project plan and helps you get stakeholders’ authorization. 

How to write a project plan

A project can quickly go from performing in the “green” region to “orange” or “red.” This might be due to missed deadlines, budget overages, or team burnout, resulting in client frustration. A project plan prepares you for a good start with realistic expectations and outcomes to avoid such performance issues later. 

You can write down a project plan on chart paper or project management software, which makes it easier to track everything in real time. When starting, you can use a free project management tool to jot down the plan, processes, timeline, and scope. 

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Let’s go over each step of completing your project management document.

1. Understand the project: pre-planning

A project plan is a precise and concise document that describes your entire project. Do your research to understand everything about your work, including dependencies and risks. Look at communication that ties in with the project, such as sales call notes, client meeting minutes, or proposal requests (RFP)

Talk to the main point of contact for the project to familiarize yourself with relevant processes and organizational politics. This could be the project manager, program manager, or the project lead. This shows them that you care about the project’s success from the beginning, and they’ll be more likely to support you as you proceed.

Below are a few points you should discuss with the project’s stakeholders: 

  • Decision-making process and product ownership
  • Stakeholder interest and involvement 
  • Goals and outcomes of similar projects
  • Meetings, deadlines, outages, and drivers.
  • Ways of communication

Bring everyone you will work with to learn more about their expertise, interests, and communication styles. Make sure you consider workload and bandwidth for your project plan, so there are fewer chances of burnout.

2. Create an outline of your project plan

Gather the notes you made in the pre-planning stage. Start to draft an outline of the project plan. You can use a whiteboard, kanban, list, or board view from project management software. This outline showcases how your project works from a high-level view. 

Jot down your project’s critical components or milestones and break them down into smaller tasks. 

Show the outline to your team and reach a consensus before you take it to the client. This helps make communication clear and encourages the team to put their efforts into accomplishing tasks that lead toward achieving the project’s milestones.

Running an open dialogue with the team benefits the project in various ways:

  • It optimizes the approach to working, creating a more accurate project plan. 
  • It gets stakeholders thinking about the project. 
  • It builds trust among the team members who have to collaborate to get their buy-ins 

After this, you can decide which project management approach to take, agile or waterfall. This decision comes from understanding how well your team will realistically handle their tasks under these methods. 

3. Draft the project management plan

Draft a precise project management plan based on research from the above steps. Set a clear start and end date, along with deadlines for smaller sub-tasks. Put it together in an easy-to-read way so stakeholders don’t have to go through a learning curve to understand it. 

There is no limitation about how you format a project plan. If your team and higher-ups can comprehend it, it’s good to go. 

However, different stakeholders involved in the project have varying interests. Project management software helps you showcase the project plan based on their concerns. For example, your team needs a granular view of tasks and activities that lead toward a milestone. But management is going to be more concerned with budgets, resourcing, and project completion milestones. You can easily make a custom visualization of your plan on a calendar or a Kanban board using project management software. 

Present your plan as per the stakeholders’ preferences. Even if it’s on a simple spreadsheet, as long as it conveys what needs to be done and how you’re set to take it to the next stage, you’ve done your job. 

4. Get feedback from your team

Present the plan to your team before you put it in front of your stakeholders. Encourage them to be constructive and have them review timelines, tasks, dependencies, meetings, milestones, and everything critical for delivering the project on time. 

This helps you make necessary adjustments for your stakeholders presentation. It saves you from the embarrassment of making promises you can’t keep or showing a plan with mistakes.

Make sure you prepare the items from this list before moving on to the stakeholders’ presentation:

  • An executive summary or a project brief
  • A summary of the overall approach and methodology chosen 
  • Processes and deadlines 
  • Resources needed 
  • A calculated buffer before the final delivery. 

5. Execute the project plan

Use the final l plan to launch your project. However, set clear expectations with the stakeholders about the ever-evolving nature of planning and that change is inevitable. Make it clear that what’s set in the plan might not replicate itself in reality. But show them you’re confident enough to navigate and manage all changes while producing optimal results. 

You can prove your confidence by regularly updating plans and keeping stakeholders posted about the changes and how you manage them as they come. Communicate any disruptions clearly to all stakeholders and monitor risks as you move forward. Being transparent helps guide the project toward success and keeps relevant parties patient and invested.

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Project plan example: A content optimization project 

You’ll understand a project plan better with an example, so here’s a project plan for a content optimization project. 

Goal and success metrics

Bring existing content pieces back to page one rankings on the search engine results page (SERP) to increase incoming traffic by 50%. 


Some of our most popular pages have dropped in rankings on page one. We’re experiencing a significant decrease in new users and conversions. Getting these articles back to the top-ranking positions will be a comparatively low-effort/high-impact project since they already rank on page one or two. 


Optimize 50 old articles for the present SERP.


The goal is to finish in six months. We want to optimize ten content pieces per month. There will be one month kept in the buffer to manage delays or anything unprecedented.


$20,000 for the project.

Stakeholders and roles

  • Content marketing managers own the project calendar, hold kickoff meetings, conduct weekly check-ins, and publish optimized content pieces.
  • Content strategists create outlines to improve on-page SEO and review optimized articles. 
  • Content writers optimize content pieces based on set outlines. 
  • Content editors make sure optimized content pieces are error-free. 
  • Content promotion specialists research opportunities for referrals and improve off-page SEO. 


For every ten content pieces optimization, you achieve one milestone. Based on the timeline, you should accomplish all five milestones by the end of the fifth month.


Below is a detailed overview of the steps to take to complete the optimization project.

  • Content marketing managers create kickoff meetings to start the project and explain details. 
  • Content marketing managers make optimization tasks in project management software and assign them to content strategists.
  • Content strategists make outlines and assign them to writers. 
  • Writers optimize content pieces and give them to content strategists for review.
  • Content strategists share their feedback and writers make necessary changes.
  • Content strategists take a second look. 
  • Content strategists finalize contextual edits and move the task to content editors. 
  • The content editor suggests edits and tags the writer to make changes. 
  • After making edits, the writer creates a copy of the draft on the content management system and assigns it to content strategists for a final review.
  • Content strategists ensure everything is optimized and pass the work to the content marketing manager to take it live. 
  • Content marketing managers do a final check before publishing the piece. They then assign it to content promotion specialists to improve off-page. 
  • Content promotion specialists run outreach campaigns to get referrals and close the task. 

Navigate challenges with a plan

91% of professionals say their companies face project management challenges. A project plan keeps your team and stakeholders aligned toward project completion within the timeline, sets budget constraints, and clarifies responsibilities. It helps you foresee challenges that might come up during execution and make adjustments to address them, increasing your chances for a successful project. 

Learn more about project integration management and how to implement it.


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