The Top Three Project Plan Documents to Drive Success

What to do when you have no time to plan!

The importance of project planning cannot be overstated. The Planning Phase offers the most significant opportunity to save time, resources, and money. 

The main purpose of developing a Project Management Plan (PMP) is to break down the broad goals of the contract into manageable tasks that can be understood by team members, sponsors, and clients.  A well-constructed PMP also provides the project manager and sponsor with an accurate means of measuring job progress and an early warning of possible problems and delays.  When completed, it becomes the “road map” for the project to be distributed, followed, referred to, and updated as required.

Given how important planning appears to be and it’s direct connection to project success1, it’s a given that project managers take the time to create complete plans for every project, right?

In reality, PMs are frequently tasked with managing multiple high-profile projects simultaneously, some of which they inherited part way through, jumping from meeting to meeting while balancing deliverable development, procurement, invoicing, and employee training. Many PMs are also technical leads for their projects and balance these two roles concurrently. With all these competing responsibilities and the perpetual needs in the present, it can be a great challenge finding the time to flesh out a Project Management Plan. Most unfortunate is that this problem can feed upon itself, creating a negative feedback loop that I refer to as, “The Leakage Spiral.” 

In essence, a lack of planning leads to leakage (inefficiencies, rework, or unpaid out of scope work). Leakage in turn leads to project delays and unhappy clients, which leads to increased resource needs and stress, finally leading to no time to properly close out the project, perform lessons learned, or properly plan the next project. And on and on it goes, always working behind the 8-ball.

So how do we course correct? Like anything else, it presents a great challenge when you have to pull out of a rut. How can you imagine doing a split when you can’t even touch your toes?  A complete Project Management Plan can easily consist of 10+ subdocuments, each detailing different aspects of the project. This may prove too daunting a challenge if you find yourself stuck in one of these downward spirals and time is too difficult to come by. In this instance, I recommend you take all the time you can muster, enlist the help of other managers, your project team, sponsors, executives, and your Project Management Office, and start with a basic Project Management Plan. Prioritize the following three documents to make the most profound and lasting impact on the health of the project, and ultimately to save yourself time in the long run.

These are my top three project plan documents to drive project success:

Risk Register

The Risk Register2 is arguably the most important component of any functioning PMP. Sometimes referred to as a risk log, the register is a document that allows the PM to identify, catalogue, quantify, respond to, and track risks to your project. Industry metrics indicate that as many as 90% of project threats that are identified and managed through the Risk Management process can be eliminated3. This is incredibly significant and can in and of itself make or break a project.  Moreover, if you’ve gone through this exercise and a risk you’ve identified actually occurs, you already have a plan, an approach, and you know how to deal with it. This saves you and your team from unnecessary stress and lost time. 

Communication Plan

During the execution phase of a project, when the deliverables are actually getting produced and most of the project work is occurring, a PM spends 75 – 90% of their time communicating4. This can be a particular challenge when the PM is also a technical lead on a project. It can be a real struggle to wear both hats, but if you’re a PM, you need to be able to perform your PM responsibilities, no matter what the technical challenges. 

The Communication Plan is essentially a “who, what, when, how, why” document, dedicated entirely to project communications. Beyond simply documenting, “The team will have a project meeting once a week,” a well-developed Communication Plan gives comfort to both project managers and important stakeholders alike. When crafting the Communication Plan, a PM should ask stakeholders what their communication requirements are and subsequently have the stakeholders review and approve the plan. Over the course of the project, if the Communication Plan is adhered to, a PM will not have to field unnecessary questions from stakeholders or sponsors, and stakeholders in turn will not feel anxious about silence from the PM – everyone has an understanding of when and how information will be communicated. In the long run, a Communication Plan saves time, money, and headaches.

Project Charter

The Charter is the front page of the Project Plan. It summarizes all the information from the different plan documents you’ve created (the scope, schedule, budget, assumptions, notable stakeholders, and high level risks). In broad strokes, it spells out not just the project’s scope, but also the company’s goals and objectives for the project (which can vary from the scope itself). 

So if all this information exists elsewhere, why bother creating the Charter at all?  Aren’t we just regurgitating information? Simply stated, by laying out the project goals and objectives in a prominent (front page) manner, the Charter can and should act as a guiding document for the PM and the team. 

It can actually be surprisingly difficult to summarize the scope of a complex project into only a few sentences, but there’s value in the exercise.  If a project gets too far afield or if the project team or manager gets tunnel vision and scope creep starts to develop, reviewing the charter can bring the project back into focus quickly.  The defining characteristic of a Project Charter is that it is distributed to each team member and a hard copy is signed by everyone.  A little cheesy, maybe, but by having each team member sign their name, it is expected people will more fully commit to their role on the project and the project’s success.

So when you’re pressed for time and battling a constant barrage of problems, setbacks, and roadblocks, how do you reorient yourself? As best you can, squeeze out enough time to develop these three simple documents.  More than any other project plan component, the Risk Register, Communication Plan, and Project Charter provide the most universal and lasting impact. If developed and implemented consistently, they will protect you from unnecessary stress, save you time, and they will drive project success.  

David Whall is Geocomp’s Project Management Office Manager, having joined Geocomp in 2012.  As a Registered Project Management Professional (PMP), he leads the development and implementation of new Project Management processes, designed to increase Geocomp’s efficiency, profitability, and enhance the value we provide to our clients.

[1] Serrador, P. (2012). The importance of the planning phase to project success. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2012—North America, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. <;.

[2] Ray, S. (2017). Guide to Using a Risk Register. <;.

[3] Dinu, C. (2011). Risk governance: creating a risk superstructure for projects. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2011—EMEA, Dublin, Leinster, Ireland. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. <;.

[4] Fontein, D. (2020). Building Effective Communication Skills: A Guide for Project Managers. <;.

Published by Geocomp Blog

Geocomp is a company of people dedicated to delivering best-value services and solutions to help clients identify and manage risks to natural and built environments using innovative applications of science and technology.

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