What Needs to Be in a Project Plan?

A project plan is the culmination of meticulous planning by a project manager. It is the master document that guides how the project will run. According to the Project Management Institute, it is “a formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” It is the plan of plans because documented within it are the project manager’s intentions for each key facet of the project.

Outlined below are the critical elements found in many project plans. Organizations have their own processes and protocols for what needs to be in a project plan and more generally how projects are to run, so not all project management plans will have these elements. However, project managers should consider all of them in the planning phase to avoid confusion and forced improvisation during the project execution phase.

Project Goals

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Project goals are defined in the project charter, but they should be included in the project plan as well. There are several ways to do this. The project plan could reiterate what is in the project plan; it could further explain the goals; or it could include the charter as an appendix. No matter how a project manager chooses to incorporate the goals into the project plan, the important thing is to maintain a clear link between the project charter -- a project’s first key document -- and the project plan -- the project’s second key document. 

Project Scope

Like project goals, scope is defined in the charter; however, a project manager should further refine the scope in the project plan. One of the best ways to define what is in scope for a project is to define what is out of scope. For example, a project to automate a manual process would need scope definition on where that process begins and ends in order to appropriately exclude tasks that are outside the scope of the project. This information helps a project manager define what is in scope.  

Milestones and Major Deliverables

The key achievements for a project are called milestones. The key work products are called major deliverables. They represent the big components of work on a project. A project plan should identify these items, define them and set deadlines for their completion.

Say an organization undertakes a project to developnew software. Such a project has both milestones and deliverables. Major deliverables could be the final list of business requirements and the list of functional requirements that implements those business requirements. Following those, the project could have milestones of the end of business design, the end of system testing, the end of user acceptance testing and the software rollout date. These milestones have work products associated with them, but they are more about the processes than the products themselves.

Milestone and major deliverable deadlines do not have to be exact dates, but the more precise those dates are the better. Something with a deadline of October can be achieved any day in October from the 1st to the 31st, but a deadline of October 15 must be met on or before October 15. Precise dates help the project manager make an accurate work breakdown structure. 

Work Breakdown Structure

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A work breakdown structure, or WBS, deconstructs the milestones and major deliverables in a project into smaller chunks so that one person can be assigned responsibility for each chunk. In developing the work breakdown structure, the project manager considers many factors such as the strengths and weaknesses of project team members, the interdependencies among tasks, available resources and the overall project deadline.

The project manager is ultimately responsible for the success of the project, but he or she cannot do the work alone. The WBS is a tool the project manager uses to ensure accountability on the project because it tells the project sponsor, project team members and stakeholders who is responsible for what. If the project manager is concerned about a task, the project manager knows exactly who to meet with regarding that concern.


A project’s budget shows how much money is allocated to accomplish the project. The project manager is responsible for dispersing these resources appropriately. For project that have vendors, the project manager ensures deliverables are completed according to contract terms, paying particular attention to quality. Some project budgets link to the human resources plan. 

Human Resources Plan

The human resources plan shows how the project will be staffed. It is sometimes known as the staffing plan. This plan defines who will be on the project team and how much of a time commitment each person is expected to make. In developing this plan, the project manager negotiates with team members and their supervisors on how much time each team member can devote to the project. If staff are needed to consult on the project but are not part of the project team, that is also documented in the staffing plan. Again, appropriate supervisors are consulted. 

Risk Management Plan

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A game of the board game Risk is in progress. Flickr user sputnik / Creative Commons

Many things can go wrong on a project. While every possible disaster or minor hiccup is unforeseeable, many can be predicted. In the risk management plan, the project manager identifies risks to the project, the likelihood those risks will happen and strategies to mitigate those risks. The project manager seeks input from the project sponsor, project team, stakeholders and internal experts.

Mitigation strategies are put into place for risks that are likely to occur or have high costs associated with them. Risks that are unlikely to occur and ones that have low costs are noted in the plan; however, they may not have mitigation strategies.

Communications Plan

A communications plan outlines how a project will be communicated to various audiences. Much like the work breakdown structure, a communications plan assigns responsibility for completing each component to a project team member.

Each message has an intended audience. Project managers ensure each message is tailored to its specific audience. A communications plan helps project managers ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time. 

Stakeholder Management Plan

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A stakeholder management plan identifies how stakeholders will be used in the project. Sometimes stakeholders only need to receive information. That can be taken care of in the communications plan. If more is needed from stakeholders, a stakeholder management plan outlines how it will be obtained. 

Change Management Plan

A change management plan lays out a framework for making changes to the project. Project managers tend to want to avoid changes to the project; however, changes are sometimes unavoidable. The change management plan provides protocols and processes for making changes. It is critical for accountability and transparency that project sponsors, project managers and project team members follow the change management plan.