Brown Paper Planning (Project Plan Template)

Have you ever created an action plan for a project that failed during delivery?

This Brown Paper Planning process is a project plan template that will dramatically increase your chance of success.

Who didn’t do what they said they would? Did commitment of the key stakeholders waver over time?

Brown Paper Planning Step 3

WARNING: If you plan without involving key stakeholders you run the risk of delays, scope creep and failure to deliver

Project plans (a.k.a. gantt charts) do a great job of communicating but what most people don’t realize is the process you use when you first develop the plan is 10 times more important than the pretty diagram itself.

Brown Paper Planning is a project plan template and process that uses the power of the team to plan a change implementation. At the same time it builds incredible team ownership.

It documents an entire implementation – capturing roles, a timeline and activities shown in “swim lanes”.

It also highlights all milestones, activities, interfaces, decision points and deliverables.

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  • check
    To engage your team in planning together all the things that need to be done in order to implement a project or change initiative.

When Would You Use It?

  • When it is time to plan how you will deliver the change.
  • When you would like to increase buy-in and build ownership of key people in the execution of the plan.

Resources Required

  • 1 hour.
  • A large piece of brown or blank paper up on a wall (about 2 meters high and perhaps 4 meters long).
  • Lots of post-it notes and flip-chart marker pens.
  • Space in the room around the paper for people to stand and move.


  • 1
    Mark out the paper as shown below. There are three things to bear in mind: workstreams; ‘swim-lanes’; and a timeline.
Brown Paper Planning Step 1
  • 2
    Your team will first need to identify a number of ‘workstreams’. For convenience, these are ways of dividing up the work of implementing change for planning purposes. They may reflect the responsibilities of several different stakeholders in the project; or they might reflect the different but related functions that make up the change solution (e.g. if your change project was all about moving house, then for planning purposes it might be sensible to think of different streams of work that correspond to the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders such as: vendor; purchaser; solicitor; estate agent; building society; etc.)
  • 3
    Each workstream is allocated its own ‘swim lane’ – a row across the brown paper into which all the activities assigned to that workstream are planned.
  • 4
    The ‘timeline’ reflects the duration of the change project, working backwards right to left, from the end of the project back to the start date. Divide the timeline into equal columns to represent convenient blocks of time or calendar dates – in weeks, months, or school terms, whatever is sensible.
  • 5
    Start populating the plan by identifying key milestones. These are events, deliverables or decision points that symbolize significant achievements at certain points along the timeline. In the example of moving house, these might be ‘making an accepted offer’; ‘exchange of contracts’; ‘completion’; etc.
  • 6
    Use square post-it notes to represent the milestones and orientate them in a diamond shape. Write clearly the identity of the milestone in each case.
  • 7
    In the picture below, there is a series of four milestones in the workshop delivery swim lane – each representing the delivery of one workshop. In the workshop outputs swim lane there are two milestones that represent: an interim draft report; and the final report; respectively.
Brown Paper Planning Step 2
  • 8
    Complete the plan by using post-it notes to represent activities (note that for clarity, each workstream has been assigned a different color). Activities are the work that must be done in order to meet the planned milestones. By using a string of post-it notes you can represent the planned duration of each activity, from start to finish. Use a marker pen to identify the activities with a label.
  • 9
    Finally, it is advisable to indicate where the start or finish of one activity is dependent on another, by drawing lines between them. These are your dependencies.
Brown Paper Planning Step 3
  • 10
    If different people in the team are assigned to a workstream and plan their ‘own’ swim lane, their thinking is then challenged and informed by the planning of other workstreams on which they are interdependent. This results in a far more rigorous plan and builds ownership of the plan going forward.

Secret Sauce

  • Don’t plan alone – always use the team by assigning responsibility among team members for each swim lane in the plan.
  • Start with milestones – working back from right to left with the final deliverable first, then the subsidiary key milestone events /deliverables.

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About the Author

Nick Martin helps leaders & consultants improve team results with resources, advice & coaching through

  • Gill Cromhout says:

    Thank you Nick…your site is extremely generous and the tools very helpful in the work I do.

    Kind regards

    • Pleasure Gill … thanks for leaving a comment … I really appreciate it.

  • Ellen Kelly says:

    Thank you so much for very informative information very useful in my role as Learning,Education and Development facilitator

  • Rolene Fain says:

    absolutely love your generosity and the way you have drawn up these useful 101 activities. So easy to follow for all.

  • Phil Coady says:

    Hi Nick

    An interesting and useful site….I am sure I will make use of it…..where are you based in the UK?

    If you search ‘Integrated Commercial Excellence B.V.’ on LinkedIn, you will see my company page…we are regularly running leadership workshops, Sales Framework Workshops, Marketing Segmentation and Value Proposition/Story Workshops.

  • Barbie says:

    The Brown Paper planning was used with an NPO on a planning day – it is a challenge to plan ahead a whole year in their view – but the challenge was laid out, certain date parameters were discovered that they can work to in terms of planning workshops etc, and we will be doing it again in February. Thank you for this awesome, simple to use, but incredibly effective tool.

    • It’s a pleasure Barbie. You’re right that planning a long way in the future can be a challenge. When I’m facilitating this activity I’ll be looking out for this dynamic of the group looking overwhelmed and if it’s there suggest bringing the scope down to make it more manageable. There’s no rule saying you have to do all your planning in one big session. It’s important the group feels comfortable with the activity so they focus on the task rather than the process. You sound like you have it all under control though with a follow-up session in February.

  • Anna Sannibale says:

    A huge Thank You for sharing great ideas and resources

  • Patric says:

    I have used that tool for some years now. Very useful I like your presentation and packaging of the tool.

  • Thank you for some really useful templates …. you e saved me lots of valuable time!

  • Madonna Day says:

    I am grateful for these ideas…we are working in our community to move into transitions for health care model.

  • Joan Pryce says:

    Thank you for sharing your ideas… I am very grateful for them. I have always found it difficult to engage a larger audience in planning out the project. Your approach (specifically to start with swimlanes and milestones first) is one I will definately try in my next team project and am sure will have a positive impact.

  • Clear, simple and infinitely adaptable… thanks so much for sharing these incredibly useful resources for the benefit of so many. Best regards, Colin

  • ettie says:

    Dear Nick, I can only echo the sentiments already shared by others. I very much appreciate your sharing.

  • Liz Cassis says:

    Hi Nick

    thank you for sharing – Liz

  • David Dunn says:

    I find this tool to be very effective in large projects with numerous work streams and use it to build up a 12 wk visual look ahead, reviewed daily to check all tasks are completed.

    • Absolutely David. The key to planning is never to do it in isolation. It might be ‘easier’ to do in a darkened room with just you deciding everything but rarely works well in my experience.

  • David Dunn says:

    Thanks again for sharing!!

  • Graham Lewington says:

    I remember some ten years ago, I was leading Operations in the set up of a large pharmaceutical company’s new clinical imaging department. Having been to business school I was familiar with good old Gantt charts, but there was an Irishman in the team and he came up with a much more rudimentary version of Brown Paper Planning. I seem to remember spending several days in a large room with post it notes of different colours all over the walls. We were trying to set out how work processes flowed, so that we could begin to put in place the beginnings of a Quality Management System to govern processes and to essentially try to prise out of the many groups – physics, chemistry, mathematicians, clinical doctors, nurses, biologists… You get the picture, how their particular job fitted into the general scheme of things and how the other groups equivalent processes all knitted together and around each other. None of these people had ever worked together and none of them had worked on such a large and challenging project! But, as you show above, by getting everybody to write down what their job entailed on post its and stick them on the wall in sequence, then get another group to do the same and so on, we quickly built up a picture of what was involved and the scale of the project. Most importantly, it broke the ice, got people talking to their new colleagues and proudly telling others what they did. This group of near strangers went on to become the single best, most professional team that I have ever had the pleasure to work with!!

    I think your much more formal (in a relaxed way..) design, particularly with the ‘swim’ lanes (something that we didn’t ever really define, so getting over the anarchy took a lot longer than it should have, is a revelation! And, if I ever get the chance to set up another big pharma research centre (I’ve done two and two large academic centres in London and Manchester) I will come knocking on your door before I ever set foot on the building site. Excellent stuff, thanks for giving it away! I’ve seen this sort of process work and quickly produce results!!
    Very sorry about the length of the post….

    • Wow! What a wonderful story Graham. Thank you for sharing with the community. You are absolutely right about the powerful effect a process like this can have on bringing people who hardly know each other together behind a shared mission. Congratulations on making it happen.

  • Luis Vega says:

    Great tool

  • Liza Rudolfsson says:

    This is good stuff, thank you!

  • Renae says:

    Extremely helpful.

  • Manisha Sapar says:

    Hi Nick
    I liked the concept of Brown Paper planning, easy to understand and execute, usable with any project (personal or professional).
    – Manisha

  • andrew musyoka says:

    looks good

  • Bolapeju Agboola PhD says:

    This is a good piece of information for the planners abd scholars.Thank you for sharing it

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