A Work Plan
Learn everything you need to know about creating a project/work plan for business projects. Includes best practices, how-tos, examples, and a free work plan template at the bottom.
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President
I can’t agree more with President Eisenhower’s quote. Planning forces me to organize my thoughts and narrative for change. If I establish a goal, and I have a bunch of chess pieces, I have to figure out the proper sequencing of all of the chess moves to achieve the goal. And, given the chess pieces are people, I have to assess how much they can get done in a timely fashion, create milestones that will stretch the team but are reachable, and build a case for change that will motivate the team. Then, I have to figure out how to get the wheels turning in a new direction, aligning and mobilizing people and resources to focus on something new and unknown. There are a lot of moving pieces, and while a plan might be good, it will always be imperfect, and inevitably the plan is only as useful as the planning that went into it.
Strategic leaders expend much of their mental energy on thinking about the future and working backward. And, they codify much of their thinking into a plan. So, let’s go over what makes up a plan and some of the best practices in planning and creating a plan.
What is a plan?
A plan begins to bring to life a strategy. A plan arranges the composition of resources and work necessary to achieve an objective over some time period. A plan is useful to further problem solve a strategy, understand the magnitude of necessary resources, work, and time, chunk up progress into milestones, reveal dependencies, align and provide clarity to stakeholders and serve as a cornerstone for execution.
Whether the plan is a strategic plan, a project plan, a marketing plan, a daily plan, or any other plan, all plans share a set of common elements, including objectives, resources (money, people, infrastructure) workstreams, work blocks, phases & milestones, dependencies, and time.
A Plan begins with an objective, the ultimate output of the use of resources. The objective can be figuring out a solution to a problem, building a new product, next year’s growth goals for a business, or getting from point A to point B. Regardless, it is important to be crystal clear on the objective, for it serves as the guidepost to optimize the work, resources, and timing of a plan.
Workstreams & work blocks
Work is the actions taken by people to accomplish objectives. Good plans separate work into both work blocks and workstreams. Work blocks are chunks of interdependent tasks. While workstreams are logical groupings of work blocks, often segmented by the person, team, or function that will do the work or some other relevant segmentation.
Phases & milestones
Often, but not necessarily, work is also segmented by phases, which often defines the lifecycle of a plan over time. Phases can be punctuated at the end by milestones, which are intermediate accomplishments or outputs, signifying progress towards the ultimate objective(s) of the plan.
Resources (people, money, infrastructure)
Resources are needed to execute a plan. Resources always start with people or a team, who do the work. Often, the execution of a plan also necessitates resources such as money or budget, and infrastructure.
The last element of a plan is the dimension of time. A plan charts a course of action through time, with the plan’s composition of resources and work, optimized on the canvas of time.
Core Planning Tools
In developing good plans, there are four main tools to utilize, including collaboration, disaggregation, lean, and estimation.
Developing a good plan necessitates robust collaboration with stakeholders, potential team members, and people with previous experience. Strong planning is like a multi-dimensional puzzle, where many of the puzzle pieces are in peoples’ experiences and knowledge or created in rich interaction and discussion. The arrangement of the puzzle pieces can only be properly put together through the debate on how to optimize the right resources doing the right work at the right time to achieve the objective.
Building a plan is a problem solving project. And, once the objective is defined, the first step in problem solving is disaggregation. In the case of a plan, the focus is on properly disaggregating the workstreams, work blocks, phases, milestones, timing, and necessary resources. And, as with any disaggregation, the key is being MECE (Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive), segmenting the elements in a way that they don’t overlap, and are inclusive of everything that is necessary to achieve the objective.
Another challenge in disaggregation is defining the right level of specificity. It is hard work to figure out at what level of specificity a plan is most effective. Regarding a high-level strategic plan, typically the right level of specificity is represented by the big goals and initiatives of an organization. A daily plan needs a level of specificity at the task level.
Defining too low of a level of specificity (tasks) on a project plan can demoralize people. People like to know what they need to accomplish, and not be told how to accomplish things. Typically with a project plan, keep the work blocks and streams defined at a pretty high level, and focus the attention on setting the right milestones and goals.
A plan outlines a process with inputs (resources) creating outputs (milestones and objectives). As with all processes, be as lean as possible, eliminating the 8 Forms of waste, including waiting, motion, over-processing, over-production, defects, transportation, intellect, and inventory.
More often than not, there is a lot of waste within the architecture of a plan. Maybe the plan doesn’t fully utilize resources by parallel processing workstreams, has milestones that aren’t value-added output, but are more procedural, or creates multiple handoffs from one group to another. Just like in any process, it is important to use lean tools to minimize waste.
The goal of a plan is to efficiently and effectively utilize resources to achieve an objective. Therefore, you should apply a high level of diligence in eliminating waste from a plan.
It is difficult to accurately estimate the necessary resources and timing to get the work done in a plan. There are two main elements of estimation. The first is properly estimating the amount of work that needs to be done, including any dependencies between work blocks. The second element is properly estimating how many resources you need and the productivity of the resources.
Estimating the amount of work involves properly disaggregating and leaning out the work blocks. Estimating the amount and productivity of resources can be much trickier. Software development studies highlight that the best software developers can be up to 15 times more productive than bottom-tier software developers. So, getting the right people on a project is a big part of the success equation.
Regarding estimating the productivity of the resources, the best practice is to involve the people in the planning that are going to execute the plan. Through a combination of their experiences, past performance, and debate, the team can typically assess what resources they truly need and how long the work will take. And, of course, the other estimation best practice is to always provide a bit of resource and time buffer in a plan. Typically, there is enough buffer in a plan when the people that will execute the plan have a 90-95% confidence level that they will accomplish the objective with the planned resources and schedule.
DOWNLOAD THE POWERPOINT PROJECT PLAN TEMPLATE
To get you going on planning your next project, download the free and editable PowerPoint Project Plan Template.
For an upcoming project, use the following Project Plan Template to organize the different elements of a plan.
First, think through the objectives and outputs of the project. Then dive into disaggregating the work into 2-5 workstreams. Next, think through the work blocks necessary for each workstream. Focus on what the output of each work block is and the steps to get there. You can either create milestones for the work streams or the total projects. Then adjust the timing of each work block by estimating the resources and time needed to complete, giving a little cushion to ensure there is enough time for completion. Organize the work blocks and workstreams to account for dependencies.
Once the project work has been organized, then codify your thoughts on the team structure and personnel, and the resources you’ll need to execute the project. This should give you a good understanding of the overall budget for the project.
When a project strawman is complete, the next step is to get more stakeholders involved to iterate and improve the various elements of the plan. Once the necessary stakeholders agree and sign off on the plan, then the project plan should go through the organization’s governance process to be evaluated against other projects and hopefully approved.