How to create a masterful project outline
January 05, 2023
New project excitement is a thing. It’s fresh and full of promise — and with deadlines looming, it’s oh-so-tempting just to dive right in. Hold it right there. Before you start writing, it’s essential to draft a project outline.
Why? The reality is that without an outline, you won’t have a clear map of your project’s direction and goals — which can lead to backtracking and stress when deadlines approach. Plus, an outline will help keep you organized while crafting your project, ensuring that all your hard work won’t go to waste.
So, how do you create an effective outline? Here are our top tips.
What is a project outline?
A project outline is basically a framework for your project. It’s a strategic plan that breaks down what you need to do, when, and who’s responsible for completing each task.
Each outline should include the project goal, timeline, individual roles and tasks, and other details related to the project — like who’s funding it or reviewing progress.
You’ll need to cover these things as a bare minimum, but as with all things, there’s no definitive way to go about this, and you’ll almost certainly want to go into more detail when it comes to creating your own.
What are the benefits of a project outline?
Having a project outline helps ensure that your project stays on track and gets completed on time. It also reduces the workload of each team member since everyone will clearly understand their roles and responsibilities, which means no doubling up, backtracking, or correcting mistakes. Plus, if you need to add or remove any tasks during the process, it’s easy to locate which ones because you have them all mapped out in your outline. Finally, if you ever need to review the project down the road or do something similar, an outline can provide a helpful reference point.
So to summarize, a project outline helps you with the following:
- Understand your project scope
- Break down tasks
- Simplify task assignment and resource management
- Track progress over time
- Make timely adjustments when necessary
- Increases your chance of project success
- Provides a useful reference point for future projects
What happens if you don’t use a project outline?
Not creating an outline can result in a lot of wasted time and energy. Without a clear plan, you won’t have any way to measure your progress or ensure that each team member is doing their part. This can lead to missed deadlines, unfinished tasks, and general confusion — all of which are big no-nos when it comes to project management.
Creating a project outline: How to do it
Now that you’re familiar with the basics, here’s how to start.
Start by gathering data
Before you start planning, you need to gather data.
This helps you identify critical tasks, define roles and responsibilities, and estimate a timeline — not to mention help you tangibly define the overarching project goal and help everyone on the team to understand it. While you may have already set this out via the project scope and planning documents, those tend to be high-level and aimed at stakeholders.
The project outline lays it out in a way tied to tasks and deadlines — essential for those actually doing the work.
To help you assemble the data you need, try asking the 5 Ws: what, who, when, where, and how.
- What is the goal of this project?
- What are the deliverables?
- What tasks need to be done?
- What are the timeline and deadlines?
- What resources do we need?
- What are the risks?
- What do we do when things go wrong?
- Who is responsible for each task?
- Who will review progress?
- Who will provide feedback or resources?
- Who are the key stakeholders?
- When is the project deadline?
- When should each task start and finish?
- Where will the work be done?
- Where can we find resources if needed?
- Where are the team members located?
- Where are the suppliers located?
- How much time is available for each task?
- How should progress be tracked and reported on?
- How will we measure success?
- How do we use the tools and tech efficiently?
- How do we mitigate risks?
- How does the team communicate?
- How do we measure performance?
Once you’ve compiled the data for all these questions (and remember, this isn’t a definitive list; you may want to add more as needed), you have all the necessary information to create a comprehensive project outline.
Next, create the outline
Now that you’ve done your research, it’s time to start setting out the actual outline. Here’s what you’ll need to include as a minimum:
- Basic information, including title and date, plus a list of goals
- A more detailed list of the project objectives and goals with deadlines
- The project scope
- A list of the key stakeholders and team members
- Responsibilities of each team member
- A list of resources
- The project timeline
- A list of the project’s constraints
- Risks associated with the project
- Contingency plans for when things go wrong
- Quality standards and measurements
- A way to track progress over time
You don’t need to use any specific software or template, though those are available and will help simplify the process. Interactive Gantt charts, drag-and-drop kanban boards, and automated tracking features do most of the heavy lifting, boosting collaboration and communication between the team. Why would you not?!
Tips for writing a project outline
Whether you’re using spreadsheets or dedicated software, creating a project outline doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process — as long as you approach it with a few simple guidelines in mind. Here are a few tips:
- Be specific: This isn’t the place for vague statements. Provide as much detail as possible.
- Keep it concise: Your outline should be clear and concise; no rambling allowed!
- Think ahead: Make sure your outline includes contingencies if something goes wrong.
- Encourage collaboration: Ensure the outline is accessible to all team members and stakeholders so that everyone can stay on top of the project’s progress.
- Involve everyone: Get input from every stakeholder involved — that way, you’re sure you’ve included everything relevant to the project’s success.
- Don’t rush: Take your time. A good outline is essential for the success of a project, so don’t cut corners.
- Keep your audience in mind: Remember that your outline needs to be understood by everyone, so use plain language that’s jargon-free (and if you have to use technical terms, provide a glossary).
- Use quantifiable data: Include measurable data points (e.g., deadlines, costs) where possible to make it easier to track progress and measure success.
- Acknowledge risks and constraints: Be aware of any risks or constraints that could affect the project, and address them in your outline.
- Be persuasive: Make sure your outline is persuasive to ensure everyone involved understands the importance and value of the project.
- Stay organized: Use project management tools, like Backlog, to help you stay organized and on top of things so that the project stays on track.
By following these simple steps, you can create an effective project outline that keeps your team on track and ensures the project finishes on time and within budget.