Make a 3-year plan: Step 4 - Define your main projects and make a project plan


How to apply big corporate strategy planning to your small business:

A big corporate company has a long term as well as short term strategy that includes everything, every function and employee to ensure that they are reaching the business goals. This type of planning - a 3-year plan - is something I learned and lived by when working as a marketing project manager for a big global car brand, before I started Bear Bell Productions.

As I had no experience in running my own business, or knowledge of how you succeed as a pattern designer it was close at hand to plan my own business in the same way as I had learned from corporate life. And I found that it’s a great way to stay on track, know exactly what to do and not and how to stay focused - even for a small one-woman company. Perhaps even better than for a big one.

In a series of articles about how to make a 3-year plan you can learn how to apply big corporate strategies to your own business/blog/project like this too - and make sure you’ll make that big goal of yours happen.

Now we have come to step 4 of making a 3-year plan for your creative business.
So far this is what we’ve done:

Step 1: Set the big goal, where we want to be in 3 years - with a vision and a mission for your business.
Step 2: Set measurable objectives that defines what realises that big goal using the different functions within your business.
Step 3: Set milestones for year 1 and 2 up to that big goal in 3 years, plus set ratios for each year to understand what needs to be done in order to stay on the right track and work towards the big goal.

<< If you missed the previous steps you can find all articles here >>


Step 4: Define your main projects and make a project plan

Looking at your functions, sub functions and the ratios, these might seem to generate quite a long to-do list - a bit overwhelming perhaps. And yes, there is a lot of things that needs to be done probably, but as a big company would, we also have to do some priorities - because we can’t do everything, at least not all at once.

So we have to look at all the things we need to do to move towards that big goal and give them a value when it comes to importance and urgency. Welcome to the project planning phase.

Do the right things with minimum waste

I used to be a marketing project planner for Toyota here in Sweden. And if you are familiar with this company in general you might recognize the concept of The Toyota Way? It’s the company philosophy that extremely simply explained is about lean production. There is a lot more to it than that, but lean is what Toyota is famous for. An important cornerstone in the Toyota Way is efficiency, to do things right, the right things and without waste (muda). Everything in a process that doesn't generate a value has to be removed or improved in a way that it does generate value. And a key to do this is by thorough planning.

Plan, Do, Check, Act

When it comes to project management at Toyota there is a method called PDCA (Plan - Do - Check - Act) that is used for any kind of process, especially the ones that are reoccurring. It’s a way of removing everything that's not providing value, standardize a process in order not to have to reinvent the wheel over and over again and at the same time accomplish constant improvement - Kaizen. This method could be a series of articles itself, but here is a short summary of the key components.


First you plan your project thoroughly, to know exactly every step, component, stakeholder that is involved in the project. According to the PDCA method, the planning phase includes grasping the situation, setting targets, creating a plan and communicate the plan to everyone involved.


After planning you DO the tasks. To use a big corporate world: you implement the plan by setting things in motion tracking the schedule, monitoring and adjusting the plan when necessary. Because no matter how detailed a plan is in the beginning, the world is dynamic and unexpected things will happen that you have to adapt to.


As the third step you evaluate the result and process of your project. How did I do?. Did it go according to plan, did it perform as you had set it up? If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?


As the last and fourth step you act on what you have learned from the evaluation, which means that you solve problems that might have occurred, take notes for what could be done better next time, share it with the rest of the team and make sure everyone else is on board.

Planning is everything

According to this PDCA method the planning phase is the most important one. If you do the planning right, research, identifying people involved, schedules, cost etc you will more likely do the right things when you later start implementing your plans, instead of testing, failing and testing again till you get it right as you would do with no planning. A good plan will reduce waste - waste of time and resources.

The planning phase should be about 50% of the project effort and time spent, the ”do” phase maybe 20% and the ”check” and ”act” about 15% each.

So how do we apply this to our 3-year plan? Well, we are already using it. We are right in the middle of the planning phase, but now we will get down to more hands on tasks - the projects and the action plan.

Identify the major projects of your plan

So in order not to swamp our time and schedule with too many things to do at the same time we start by identifying the major projects and at this stage of our 3-year plan we can limit our project planning to our first year. We could of course plan the projects for year two and three as well, but the risk is that things will change and happen during that first year that changes the course of these projects and the planning we’ve done could be in vain. It’s better to plan about a year ahead. Thanks to your milestones and ratios, you already have done some of the planning for all 3 years.

Turn your ratios into projects

Defining the year 1 projects is an easy task really. All we have to do is look at the ratios, the measurable objectives that we have set up already for our functions and then we can easily either redefine them as projects or cluster them into a common project:

Let’s look at the objectives for the product-, sales- and marketing functions of the little design business as example:

SUB FUNCTION: Design Studio
- 50 patterns for practice; of which 10 focal prints, 40 coordinating prints; x conversational, x abstract, x geometric, x floral etc.
- Have 6 portfolio books ready to send out presenting 3 pattern collections á 12 patterns, one Spring/Summer collection, one Fall/Winter collection, one Holiday collection + an online version of the portfolio.

SUB FUNCTION: Printed Products
4 product categories and 12 products with my prints available in the web shop

- 1 sales channel with 3 payment solutions
- A list of 100 companies I’d like to work with with names and contact info.

- A brand document describing X,Y,Z  - what I (my business) shall look and sound like on all target group touch points.

SUB FUNCTION: Communication platforms
- A website with x, y, z.
- 1000 followers on Instagram.
- A mailing list with 100 addresses.
- A monthly newsletter.
- A blog with one post a week

These are a few examples of the activities within the business according to the 1st milestone and the set objectives/ratios. If we look at them some are already categorized within the sub functions, but that might not be the optimal composition of an effective project.

A project is a portion of your work within a specific function that will develop your business or function from one level or state to another, or add a new tool or platform what can help create value for your business.

The key is to not make the projects too big, or there is a risk that they will never be completed. Another key is to find a common theme, to limit the project.

For example, the design business has an objective of creating 50 pattern designs during the first year. That's a lot. And to define this as a project would probably make it a bit too general and too big. Better then to divide it into more specific, described and themed projects.

Perhaps like this:

Design Studio projects
1. Spring / Summer collection
2. Fall / Winter collection
3. Holiday collection
4. Portfolio book + online version

For the marketing objectives above there are some natural themes already, and the projects could be defined something like this: 

Marketing projects
1. Brand guidelines document
2. Set up digital platforms
3. Content calendar for digital platforms

Instead of creating a project for each platform (website, blog, instagram, pinterest) you could create projects who's goal is to create the accounts and then you can efficiently set up all the accounts at the same time, using the same bios, about text, headlines, captions, images and tags on all platforms.

A separate project would then be to plan the content for these platforms during the year by creating a content calendar.

The final key to defining a project is to check it and see if when it's completed, the outcome will either generate or help create some kind of value for your business. It can be to save time, generate revenue, grow your following, improve your health and so on.

A clue on what will make a project is to ask yourself:

Is this activity going to move me and my business from one state to another?

Is this activity going to help me create some kind of value?

Is this activity going to happen during a limited amount of time?

Project vs daily task

That last question address an important difference between a task and a project. 

 A project is something that has an end result, you finish it and then it’s done. The daily tasks are a constant, or repeating action, such as posting content on your different platforms.

The content calendar example I mention above is another project, at least to set it up, then updating it is perhaps a weekly or monthly recurring task, but not a project itself.

Project management

This is what I did when working at Toyota: I initiated a marketing project which could be launching a new model or an advertisement campaign. I planned all activities together with the people and other functions involved, delegated the tasks to my coordinators, agencies and other suppliers, monitored and followed up that everything was working as planned, that the schedule would work, fix problems that occurred and shared the result with the rest of the company when the launch was about to go live. After during and after the launch I monitored and tracked the results and reported this to the other functions.

I always had multiple projects going at the same time, and this is also something you will have to do in order to move things forward. As much as we would like to give a project our undivided attention and focus, we will have to do many things simultaneously. But if we plan how to do this, we can still give every project focus and attention. 

My tip is to try to spread out the big projects over the year, considering events, holidays and other things that happens. In order to have a reasonable work load you will have to prioritise, make sure things are made in the proper order and that you won’t have to do things over and over again. And a help for doing this is the project activity plan.

The project plan

When planning a project you have to include everything. Now we can get down to the nitty gritty to do’s.

Project planning isn't just about writing a to do list of all the tasks. First you have to do some analysing, assessing the situation, where you’re at right now when it comes to resources and knowledge. In a specific project you might have to include a phase of learning and researching first. For example if your project of creating 50 patterns includes creating pattern categories that you have no knowledge of how to make, you have to schedule to take some courses first. You may have to learn more Illustrator and Photoshop skills, or perhaps widen your perspective of ways to make patterns or what types of patterns that are out there. You get the drift.

Here is a planning process that I often use:

Assess and analyse the current situation. 

What do you have and what do you need in order to execute this project?

For example: Building a website. What do you already have that can contribute to this project in terms of resources and knowledge? Are you already familiar with a web host service like Word Press or Squarespace? If not, where do you stand in terms of learning to do it yourself, do you have the time and willingness? Or can you outsource?

Ask questions about how and what so that you know what it takes to execute this project. If you don’t do this first, the risk is that you will have to start over again when you discover that you took the wrong path - with loss of time and energy, and perhaps in the end money.


To be able to get the whole picture and also make sure you don’t miss something substantial - make sure you have all the information at hand. Google like crazy, find tutorials on YouTube, take online- or irl courses, read books etc. 

For example, how do you create the optimal Instagram account so you can reach your objective of 1000 followers at the end of the year? There are a lot of principles out there to take advantage of in order to optimise your Instagram presence; writing the perfect bio, connecting supportive apps and functions such as a link tree, an app to keep track of your followers, post scheduling and also defining a cohesive feed with branded posts, how to use hashtags and so on. 

Or, how to use Pinterest as a marketing channel and drive traffic to your website. What tools are there that can help you? How should you do this right from the start?

Ok, for these examples you don’t have to do everything perfect all at once, but wouldn’t it feel great to know all of this when you get started, you know what you are doing, feel prepared? 

Challenge+Knowledge = fun tasks 

The way you feel about a task is dependent on both the level of challenge and your level of skills. I wrote an article about exactly this and how you can navigate through difficult and frustrating tasks. You can read it here >>

And also, it feels so much better when we do something wholeheartedly instead of half way. Plus you can avoid mistakes and the risk of wasting your time on things that don’t generate the value that you want and need?

Creating the project plan document

Then it’s time to make that list of actions. Or the plan. Or actually plans. Because it’s no use to plan one project at a time, complete it and then go on to plan and execute the next one. First let’s do an overall plan to get the rough scheduling of your projects down.

For this we have to have that list of your main projects for the year. Did you write them down? Use the worksheet for step 4 in your 3YP workbook, where you can enter 2-3 projects for every function based on the things you need to have in place at the end of year 1.


For my project activity plans I use a spreadsheet software like Excel, Pages or similar. This type of planning document is called a GANTT chart, and you can find free charts to use, here's one example.

On the first tab of my project planning spreadsheet I create a yearly plan with all the weeks,  months and quarters market out (I’m used to work on a quarterly basis from those corporate years) on the horizontal axis, spanning the whole year. Leaving the first column empty for the projects names.

Then I enter the major holidays and other events and happenings that I know of and that needs to be considered, like exhibitions, trade shows and other industry events you don’t want to forget about (weekends? what’s that?).

Then I insert my main projects in the left column.

To make this easier for you I have created a spreadsheet template for you to refer to and use if you want to. Enter you name and email so I know where to send it.


You will also find a yearly project overview to fill in in the Step 4 worksheet of the 3YP workbook, plus a template for a project activity plan.

Scheduling the projects

Now roughly place when you want each project to be completed. Estimate a reasonable amount of time you’ll need for each project. For example, the three collection projects for the Design Studio:

When do you want each of them to be completed? How many patterns can you create in a week? Ask yourself questions like that, and please, don’t be a time optimist. Things always take a lot longer than you think. Give yourself some buffer time within every project for all those surprise things that will show up.

So after you have decided on the deadline, the estimated completion time you can also enter a starting point.

Do this with all your projects, clustered into your functions. When you’ve inserted all your projects and their timelines you will have an overview where you can see how your year looks. Perhaps you have placed too many projects in the same month / quarter? Move them around until you have a year plan that seems doable and reasonable. Remember you can’t to all at the same time and you might want to have evenings and weekends off? Let you boss understand that you do :-D

Action plans for each project

Now it’s time to finally plan each project. My advice is to have a tab for every function in your spreadsheet where you gather all projects under each function.

For the yearly project overview we only needed the weeks, months and quarters, but for the activity plan I recommend to also enter the days of the week, since now we will get into such details that they can be planned for specific days.

This will create a really big spreadsheet page and for Numbers you can't enter as many columns as days of the year, so I suggest that you divide the plan into 6 months. I've created a tab in the spreadsheet template for this too.

Enter your projects within the same function on each tab in the left colum, in the same way as you did for the overview, but have about 10 rows in-between each project headline to save for your tasks, or to-do's.

At this point you probably have a good notion of a lot of tasks that you have in every project: from researching website hosts to buying materials or pushing the publish button on a product in your web shop. 

But pause for a while, grab a piece of paper or a writing pad and start from the very beginning for each project. Take a moment to come up with as many tasks, small and big, that this project will have.

Then look at the list and number them according to what needs to be done first. Then insert them in this order in your empty rows under each project. Add more rows when needed. And as you did with your overview, mark the deadline, estimated execution time and starting point for each task. It’s ok if the tasks overlap in time, some things can be done simultaneously.

The plan may look something like this:

Mark the days with filling colors or inserting arrows.

Mark the days with filling colors or inserting arrows.

Then you make this type of chart for each project that you have decided to do during this year.

When you’re done (whiew! I know, it will take some effort) you will now have a full ”what to do” plan. And, in theory, if you follow this plan, you will reach your first milestone :-).

Be prepared - things will not work out as planned

I have to repeat the earlier disclaimer. Be aware that things almost never pan out exactly as planned. Things happen, new ideas pop up, old ideas are dismissed and so on. So think of this as a guide for you to refer to, but not as the law. Remember, it’s your business, your project. You’re the boss. So if one of the projects seem wrong, discard it or change it.

And also, at the end of year one, when we start to sum up the year and prepare to plan for year 2, things will look differently, your circumstances may have changed. That’s actually a part of the 3-year plan - to be able to be agile and flexible to changes and be able to adapt to what's happening.

No matter the changes that you might have to do, having a plan like this you will feel and be much more in control than without one.

Next step: your weekly schedule

Next up is to plan your week to make sure you are moving all these little stepping stones a little bit every day, every week and keep going forward. Planning is great, but at a certain point the plan is ready to be implemented.