Think of your favorite adventure story. Whether that’s The Lord of the Rings or Spirited Away, they all share one thing in common: an overarching mission — with tasks along the way, and (hopefully) a plan to guide the hero through to their goal.
Similarly, when you embark upon a new project — whether that’s renovating a house or designing a new app — that same sense of structure and momentum will help keep things on track. This is where a work plan comes in handy.
A work plan is a document that maps out the route to your goal. It includes things like budgets and resources, as well as schedules and constraints. It’s a shared effort between you, often your team members, and almost always stakeholders — who you’ll need for buy-in.
Here’s everything you need to know about creating your first work plan, including how to get it approved and what to after your project is complete. Let’s dive in.
What is a work plan?
A work plan is a formal document that contains key steps that move you toward accomplishing a goal. It includes budgets, resources, deadlines, milestones, and a timeline. It’s usually reserved for bigger projects, but you can use a pared-back version for smaller tasks.
It’s a guiding document that helps everyone collaborate toward achieving the end goal. Before we take a look at how to create one, let’s quickly run through some key terms.
The goal describes the thing you want to achieve. For example, rebrand your business, create an app, or increase profits.
The strategy is the route you’ll take to achieving your goal. For example, if your goal was to rebrand, it could include designing a new logo, defining a new tone of voice, and creating a new mission statement.
Your objectives are deliverables that are set out in your strategy. They should be defined clearly, with deadlines and measurable factors. Setting these out helps you stay on track and measure progress.
Tactics are techniques you’ll use to help you achieve specific objectives. For example, if your goal is to increase the number of visitors to your website, tactics might include keyword research, SEO blog posts, PPC advertising, and so on.
Why use a work plan?
A work plan can help you stay on track and organize yourself. It’s also helpful for momentum: Having a document that maps out every stage of your project holds you and other team members accountable for key milestones, which comes in additionally handy for interim meetings when you need to explain your progress to stakeholders and senior management.
How to create a work plan
Creating a work plan can be a little time-consuming. But you know the drill: The more time you invest up-front, the smoother your project will be — so it pays to set some time aside to get it right.
1. Work out the ‘why’
Before you begin your worksheet, you’ll need to establish your goal. Or, in other words, define why it is you’re doing what you’re doing.
The why is central to everything. This is your goal, your quest, the reason your project exists in the first place. Try to condense this into an elevator pitch-style sentence or two, which you can put at the start (or at the top) of your work plan. It gives anyone reading it (including yourself) a snappy reminder of what it’s all about. It’s also handy for stakeholders and senior management, who often don’t have a lot of time and just want the topline summary of what it is you’re doing.
To work out the why, you’ll probably need to begin with some initial kick-off meetings with stakeholders. This will help you establish your goals, scope, and constraints. Before you head into this meeting, you may want to do some preliminary work yourself. If you’re struggling to get started, try setting out your SMART goals. These can help you organize your thoughts and overcome the initial hurdle of working out what it is you want to achieve.
2. Give your project context
You’ve hopefully thought about this during step one, so this stage should be easier. Flesh out your project’s context, including information on competitors, the current market, and how your project fits into the wider business goals.
Here are some questions to ask yourself (and, heads-up, questions you’ll probably be asked by stakeholders):
- What is the purpose of your project, and how does it support wider business objectives?
- How will your project better meet customer demands?
- How does your project compare with things competitors are doing? This might also feed into your ‘why’ (perhaps you need to release a new version of something to stay competitive).
3. Establish your strategy and objectives
Using wide brush strokes, start mapping out your route to achieving your goal, including objectives, which should be measurable. If you haven’t already done so, create a SMART diagram to help you work this out. Or, if you’ve done this already, you may want to flesh it out with more detail.
4. Define and coordinate your resources
Next, work out your resources. More detailed questions and answers can cover the following:
- How long will your project take?
- What is your budget, and where will it come from?
- Are there any constraints?
- Which tools will you use to help you (project management tools, diagramming software…)
- Who will be assigned to what role?
- What are your milestones and deadlines?
- What will success look like, and what are your metrics for measuring this?
You should also learn about the triple constraint. Having an understanding of this can help you juggle scope, time, and cost more efficiently. It can also help you plan and prepare for things that aren’t ideal, but are also unavoidable — like staff sick days, software crashes, or sponsors pulling out.
6. Define risks and create a contingency plan
Planning for the worst doesn’t mean you’re being pessimistic: It’s just good, common sense. It means that if something does happen, you’ll be more likely to know what to do next.
Risks come in all shapes and forms — from staff emergencies to accidents that impact budgets and schedules. Speak to as many people as possible to get as wide of a picture as possible, then create a contingency plan to have in place, just in case. It’s also a good idea to appoint someone to take responsibility here, in case any of these risks become reality. With every potential problem addressed, you’ll have better answers for your stakeholders, and be able to reassure them that you’ve left no stone unturned.
7. Create your work plan
Once you have all this information gathered together, it’s time to create a work plan template and fill it up. It should include your goal, your metrics for success, your objectives, deadlines, risks, and other useful information. You can use an Excel spreadsheet, or opt for project management software, which usually includes pre-built templates and charts, as well as other tools that make collaboration easier.
Dipping into other diagrams can help you at this stage. Some project managers like to use Gantt charts (like the one below) to map out their timelines.
8. Check-in and follow up
Once you’ve kicked off, it’s important to track progress and follow up with every team member to make sure everyone’s coping with the workload and completing their objectives.
Again, project management software can help you stay on top of things and spot problems early, without having to wander around the office and ask everyone in person or send out hundreds of emails — something your team will appreciate as much as you. It’s also a good idea to schedule regular check-ins, which can take the form of one or all of the following: daily stand-ups, quick team meetings once a week, meetings with management and/or stakeholders at key milestones.
The more you communicate and collaborate, the less likely it’ll be for things to slip through the cracks. It’s also a good opportunity to review the quality of work and provide feedback and make adjustments as you go.
9. Evaluate the project
Finally, work out how well you did. A post-mortem meeting (not as morbid as it sounds) is essential here because it gives everyone on the team a chance to come together, take a step back, and celebrate wins (as well as constructively address any failures).
Evaluation is important for three reasons: First, it helps you work out whether you achieved your goal or not. Second, it helps you explain the project’s success (or issues) to stakeholders. And third, it sets a useful precedent for future projects, with valuable lessons learned along the way.