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Project Plan, Task List, Schedule, WBS

I often keep hearing project managers using the term “Project Plan” very loosely to mean a Microsoft Project file (MPP). There are four different terms that I have seen project managers using interchangeably, or at times, to mean just one thing – a Microsoft Project file – Project Plan, Task List, Work Breakdown Structure, Schedule… and then there is MS Project file. Quite often, I’ve seen people use the term MS Project to mean any one of these. I was talking to one such project managers recently, who kept insisting on calling a “Task List” a “Project Plan”. To her credit, she knew the difference between a project plan (a task list in her world was a project plan) and a Project Schedule.
When I ask to see their project plan, often I’ve seen a PM open up their MS Project (or say… “I manage my project in MS Project Plan”). Or worse, show me a bunch of tasks and call it a project plan. So, here are the terms, what they are, and what they are not.

  1. Project Plan –
    1. What it is – Is a document that outlines over a dozen different plans, essentially stating the purpose, goals, and objectives of the project, and, articulates how you are going to
      1. Manage the project (Management Plan)
      2. Staff the project (Staffing or Human Resource Management Plan)
      3. Identify, analyze, plan, respond to, control, and manage risks (Risk Management Plan)
      4. Identify, gather, elicit, document, manage, and control requirements (Requirements Management Plan)
      5. Manage and control the changes to the scope (Scope Management and Change Control Plan, often includes Integrated Change Control Process)
      6. Manage the changes that the product of the project will be introducing (Change Management Plan) (this is not same as managing changes TO the project, and may include end-user training plan, field-readiness plan, post-production/launch support plan, production support training, help-desk training, and so forth)
      7. Identify and manage internal and external stakeholders, and their expectations (Stakeholder Management Plan)
      8. Communicate within and external to the project team (Communication Management Plan)
      9. Monitor, Manage, and Control the performance of the project (Performance Management Plan)
      10. Manage and control quality within the project, as well as within the product of the project (Quality Assurance Plan and Test Plan)
      11. Manage the schedule and timeline of the project (Schedule Management Plan)
      12. Manage delivery/deployment/launch/rollout/implementation (synonyms) of the product of the project (Deployment/Implementation plan)
      13. Ensure the delivery or the product of the project is accepted by the customers/sponsors/stakeholders (Acceptance Plan)
      14. Other plans as required (such as Procurement Plan, Vendor Management Plan etc.)
    2. What it is NOT – It is NOT a list outlining all the tasks that your project will be performing.
  2. Task List
    1. What it is – Is a list of ALL tasks that (at a high level or at a low level) the project team will be performing to complete the project.
    2. What it is NOT – It is NOT a Project Plan!
  3. Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
    1. What it is – is a list of unique deliverables or outcome-/result-oriented work packages (within a project’s scope) that are hierarchically broken down to the lowest possible work unit (based on company or industry standard – such as 80-20 rule). It may be used interchangeably to refer to the task list depending on the mindset of the person who is using the term. To complete a task, I may have to do 10 different things which I will identify in the WBS. On the other hand, I may want to call those 10 different things as “tasks” as well. Both are valid arguments. But the key difference is, a lowest-level WBS Item will have an effort estimate associated with it (broken down to meet 80-20 rule, for example) and the estimates to higher/parent-level elements can be arrived at by summing up the lower-level elements. A Task List is just that – a list of tasks that need to get done.
    2. What it is not – It is not a project plan or a project schedule!
  4. Schedule
    1. What it is – is a sequenced list of tasks, built from the work-breakdown structure, that is mapped on a real calendar timeline. It may or may not have various scheduling (and schedule crashing) techniques applied. Regardless, it is essentially a calendar timeline representation of the work breakdown structure that tells the reader when various activities of the project will be undertaken (start/finish), when a particular milestone (identified in the WBS) will be achieved/crossed, when which intermediate or final deliverable will be produced, which activities are dependent on which other activities, who will be performing which activity during which time period (resource-loaded schedule), and when the project will be completed.
    2. What it is not – It is not any of the above 3 items (project plan, task list, or work breakdown structure).
  5. And then there is a Microsoft Project file
    1. What it is – Microsoft Project is a software tool from Microsoft used to create, track, analyze, and manage a project schedule and project resources/staffing. It is a Project Schedule Management tool, and Resource Management tool (if/when combined with Microsoft Project Server). If you know some (undocumented) tricks and best practices on how to effectively use MS Project, it could be a great tool to track and manage your schedule. If not, it could very well be your worst nightmare to maintain a schedule. It can provide a variety of views and reports into resource availability, schedule etc. A Microsoft Project file is a file created by Microsoft Project software.
    2. What it is not – It is not a Project Plan! It’s not a Project Management tool. If Microsoft Project Server is effectively implemented and utilized, it could very well be a good tool for schedule and resource management, but it is NOT a Project Plan.