Explaining the Baseline Plan and Its Use in Project Management

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You’ve Gotta Have a Baseline

If you’re reading about a baseline plan or paging through definitions, you can find examples of how conceptual project management can be with phrases like “a resource designed to arbitrate a project from a given point, including pre-approved or approved measurements and markers for developing along a project trajectory, where recognized parameters approach a goal set…” Huh?

So what is a baseline plan, and did the above example help at all? Yes, a baseline plan is a resource, it’s something that you should have at the beginning of a project. Yes, the baseline plan often gets “approved.” Simply put, a baseline plan is a plan that defines what planners hope the project will look like. It includes cost, time, and goal factors, and it’s an attempt by whoever is putting the plan together to make reasonable estimates. Whoever is “in charge” signs off on it. After that, a baseline plan provides guidance in all stages of the project. Some might call it a “road map” to a project’s success.

You can set up a baseline plan with software like Microsoft Project, useful for planning all kinds of complex processes. Or, you can get your baseline plan down on paper and deliver it to others working on aspects of that project. Either way, a baseline plan is a measuring stick for what you encounter along the way.

Project Chronology

A baseline plan contains as many start and finish dates and duration measurements as there are stages in the project. Again, these are estimates. Why do planners estimate time for each project stage? If the estimates have any accuracy, they will serve to guide the development of each task. The estimates also show what the company or organization can afford in terms of time; and if the actual chronology goes far astray from the baseline, managers can ‘red light’ the process and try to fix it. A baseline plan is a time line for those who will be working against the clock.

Cost Estimates

Marking a baseline plan also relates to what a project manager or other planner thinks a project will cost. Again, the cost factors can be broken down to apply to each stage of a project. Now, often, people who put together these plans have an incentive to “aim high” to ensure that the actual cost falls below the projected one. This gvives the top brass a warm fuzzy feeling, where a lowball baseline cost estimate will have a slightly negative effect on paper when the actual costs exceed what was planned. The limiting factor to inflating a baseline cost is that an approval board can refuse to sign off on higher cost estimates. Generally, planners work within a reasonable or allowed range to get cost estimates for the baseline plan.


Specific goals can also be included in a baseline plan. Often, they will have their own timelines and cost estimates. A baseline plan might show how a widget will be specifically outfitted to act as a barnacle, or that all wooden table legs will be painted in two shades of green. More documentation leads to a better understanding by project teams and more efficient project implementation.

Use of Baselines

For more of the technical definitions of a baseline plan, check out sites like Max Wideman’s Project Management Glossary to see how business types define their tools and more about the specifics of what might go into the baseline plan, a resource for all stages of a project.