It’s a well-known, oft-touted truth that planning is the key to success in the workplace. Managers discuss it, research papers and articles mention it and most training modules make a point of mentioning planning: But where do you start? It’s easy to improve your planning skills, but it means you have to take dedicated time to sit down and make a plan, rather than just jumping into work as it comes across your desk.

Preparing a Work Plan

Keep in mind that not all work requires extensive planning. For some routine tasks, it can be enough to just think for a moment before you start. For example, imagine your overall task is to clean your entire house. You may want to make a plan on how to approach that, when to take breaks and so on.

But when it comes to a task like unloading the dishwasher, there’s probably no benefit in planning out how to complete this job; it’s straightforward enough that you’ll waste more time making the plan than it will actually take to complete it. Some work tasks are like this: simple, straightforward and likely repetitive. Planning is most effective and most efficient when applied to larger, more complex and/or longer-term projects.

Project Planning Steps

Remember, plans are the first step in a cycle that helps successfully execute a strategy and meet goals:

  1. Planning
  2. Execution
  3. Evaluation
  4. Suggestion

In the planning stage, goals are identified and steps to meet those goals are constructed. The execution stage is where the work is completed according to the plan. In the evaluation stage, the results are examined to determine whether or not they met the goals while remaining within the constraints set up by the plan.

The suggestion stage is an iteration or a repeat, where suggestions for changes are made based on the evaluation; these suggestions then lead into the next planning session for the next year, problem or project. Thus, each iteration of planning can be improved by taking lessons learned from previous work and applying them to your current planning strategy.

Work Plan Basics

There are a couple of different types of planning used in the workplace, and they all take slightly different skill sets to develop. The names are somewhat interchangeable, but for the sake of explanation can be categorized as such:

  • Personal work plan: This is a plan based on the employee’s responsibilities over time and how they intend to meet said expectations; it’s focused on the employee, usually over a longer period (six months to one year), and should involve activities that give them all the training they need to meet the set of tasks included in their plan.

  • Daily work plan: This plan helps the employee manage their day-to-day work. These types of plans are most important for jobs that have long-term projects but are also required to respond to daily upsets; the plan should help the employee prioritize their work when changes occur.

  • Project plan: This is a well-developed type of plan that outlines the tasks required to successfully execute and complete a specific project. The desired endpoint is defined, and the internal steps required to get to that point are broken down and scheduled as needed.

  • Action plan: This is similar to a project plan, but is usually used to address an existing problem; project plans are usually proactive, whereas action plans tend to be reactive. These plans spell out the steps to take to resolve an issue that has occurred in the workplace.

Project Plan Document Ideas

The difference between these types of plans — although, again, different organizations will use different nomenclature — are mostly in the initiating event and in the endpoint; different types of paths will require different types of planning to be effective.

Personal Work Planning These work plans are used to manage the tasks and workflow on an individual’s desk over a longer period of time. They are often integrated with the performance review process, setting out performance expectations over the next six months to one year with the company, and address specific tasks and projects to be completed as well as development goals and skill competencies to be developed.

In order to successfully create a personal work plan:

  • Understand the daily tasks on an individual’s plate and the percentage of their time they should spend on these daily tasks;

  • Identify the long-term projects the individual is responsible for, the time period for delivery and what a successful execution looks like;

  • Highlight any technical or interpersonal competencies the individual will need to complete this work, and describe how these relate to their specific position;

  • Include trainings, development opportunities and expectations for “outside the box” work not included in the above categories;

  • Estimate the priorities of all of this work, and/or the percentage of the employee’s time that should be spent on each task/type. 

These types of plans can be initiated by the employee, the manager or can be developed in a conversation between the two. Again, as these plans usually overlap with the development of performance expectations, they’re often updated annually or bi-annually.

Daily Work Planning A daily work plan is a set of ongoing tasks and responsibilities an employee is expected to perform daily or weekly, and a tool this individual can use to manage this work and prioritize their tasks. Some teammates take time each morning to make their daily plan; others have an established routine they follow and only adjust plans when there are deviations. For example, an accountant might have to execute a set of transactions and reports daily, be able to respond to emergency inquiries immediately and also work on long-term projects to develop their accounting software. Having a general daily work plan helps the individual prioritize their work and ensures they’re meeting expectations.

Things to keep in mind when making a daily or weekly work plan:

  • Discuss priorities with management to make sure everyone is on the same page. In some roles, it’s the daily tasks that are the most important; in others, emergency or unexpected requests have to take precedence. 

  • Don’t forget about the long-term projects; it’s easy to get overwhelmed by day-to-day tasks and requests. Make sure to set time aside daily or weekly to make progress on less immediate assignments.

  • Daily tasks eventually become automatic; find a method that will ensure everything gets done, because it’s easy to forget one or two things on a bad day. Consider task lists, checkboxes or automation to help.

  • When in doubt, confirm with your manager that you’re prioritizing the right types of work. It’s also easy for these types of positions to become overloaded with work such that long-term assignments slip; be sure to bring that up with management as soon as possible.

Project Planning

Project planning is a thoroughly studied field in today’s business landscape. The key to project planning is identification: identifying the endpoint (project goal), the starting point (current status) and the constraints (time, resources and scope). Project plans are different than the previously discussed types of plans, as they are specifically dedicated to one overarching task or goal, and have an endpoint that produces an output, rather than a collection of responsibilities for an individual. They’re also proactive: the planning is done once an endpoint is defined, but before anything actually happens.

While project planning methods vary, they all generally follow the same set of steps:

  • First, define the scope of the project. This requires a good understanding of the project’s endpoint; the scope is a description of the things that will define project success, as well as identification of anything not included inside this project’s plan.

  • Next, define the constraints. These are usually time (what’s the project deadline?), money (what’s the budget?), resources (how many people are on the project team?) and a capture of the scope (how many things need to be done)?

  • Outline, on a high level, the steps that need to be taken to move from the starting point to the endpoint. Then, take time to further break down each step into a set of tasks to be completed.

  • Estimate timing for these tasks, such that the project will be done by its deadline, and assign individuals who will be responsible for these tasks.

  • Don’t forget to include “post-live” steps like training, documentation updates and record-keeping to the overall timing and scope. These pieces will continue to require resources after the project “appears” finished.

Action Planning Action planning usually occurs as a response to something — a mistake, a shutdown, an incident — where the outcome is negative and needs correction. As such, these plans are usually reactive, as they’re addressing an issue that has already happened, rather than meeting a goal yet to be reached. The key to a reactive action plan is to ensure enough data is gathered that the suggestions will, in fact, correct the true cause of the problem, rather than addressing some surface issue.

To create a proper action response plan, be sure to keep these things in mind:

  • Investigate the incident fully; keep records on the environment, what happened that day and who was involved. Talk to multiple employees to get different angles on the situation.

  • Perform a root cause analysis on the situation: this type of analysis looks at something that has happened and continues to ask “why?” to drill down into the details of a problem. For example, if an employee made a mistake, a root cause analysis can reveal whether the training is inadequate, if the systems had an internal failure or if the employee couldn’t distinguish between two options. All of these will have different solutions. Situations can also have multiple root causes that will require action.

  • Create a list of corrective actions to take to adjust the behavior, incident or situation that initiated the planning. Assign individuals who will take responsibility for these tasks, and assign relative due dates, as well as someone who will check in to ensure this work is completed.

  • Gather the team together after a time period (a few months) and evaluate whether the changes that were made have actually fixed the problem, or if additional actions need to be taken. 

Different Types of Work Plans

Overall, different types of work responsibilities take different types of plans to ensure successful completion. You and your manager understand your workload better than anyone, so remember that most of the time, planning is a team sport and should involve multiple inputs and points of view, especially when looking at larger projects or incidents. Consider several work plan examples for employees before settling on the one that is best for you.

All these types of planning involve the successful application of limited resources to situations; they all require an understanding of priority expectations, as well as a clear definition of what successful completion will look like. There’s plenty of overlap in each of these types of plans, so feel free to develop methods that will work for your own work style and position.