Saturday, February 27, 2010

Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail

Minimal or zero planning usually creates the following possibilities:

  • Maximum costs;
  • Minimal profits;
  • Missed delivery time;
  • Amplified quantity of risks; and
  • Uninsured quality.

Compass Rule: Always choose a strategic planner who carries enough lead for his pencil.


Why Teams Won’t Plan
William Duncan
December 10, 2009

You’ve heard it before: “failing to plan is planning to fail.” And still countless projects suffer from inadequate planning. But the most common justifications (there isn’t enough time; the project isn’t that complex) tend to obscure deeper problems.

Here are three major causes of lackluster planning and some straightforward (suggestions)

It is an article of faith within the discipline of project management that good planning is important to success. We constantly quote pithy aphorisms such as “failing to plan is planning to fail” and “proper project planning prevents pathetically poor performance.”

Yet the fact remains that many projects still suffer from inadequate planning. When I ask experienced project managers to tell me why they hadn’t developed an adequate plan, they invariably mention one of the following reasons:

~ “There wasn’t enough time.” This idea is sometimes expressed as “there was pressure to get started on “real work.”
~ “This project was almost identical to an earlier project. We thought we knew what had to be done.”
~ “It was a small project so there seemed to be little risk in not planning.”

I am confident that all of these project managers are telling the truth in the sense that one or more of the above reasons contributed to their poor planning. But these three reasons aren’t the main causes of poor planning. In fact, they obscure the real problems.

Problem 1: Trying to plan too much too early
Can you imagine trying to plan how to build a house before you knew where it would be built and whether it was to have two bedrooms or four? Yet many project teams attempt to develop detailed plans before requirements have been agreed or before any real design work has been done. Planning in the absence of information is an exercise in futility, so teams often find it easier to just skip planning altogether.

The culprit here is typically an ill-formed project lifecycle. If the phases of your project lifecycle describe management activities (e.g., initiating, executing, closing) rather than the stages of product refinement (e.g., feasibility, requirements, design) you will seldom be able to develop a good plan because you will seldom have the information you need.

The solution to this problem is twofold. First and foremost, your organization needs to understand that projects must be planned phase-by-phase. If management requires an early commitment to budget and schedule numbers (and this is a perfectly reasonable request), a key feature of your phase-by-phase planning will be figuring out the best way to adjust scope to these constraints.
Second, choose a project lifecycle that reflects the level of difficulty involved in defining the product of your project. Three or four phases will be fine for most projects, but some projects may require the indeterminate number of phases provided by an agile development approach.

Problem 2: Team members don’t understand planning
I often ask participants in my courses “why plan?” My all-time favorite reply: “because now you know one way the project won’t happen.” This project manager saw value in eliminating even one of an infinite number of possibilities! He understood that planning provides enormous value even as the plan itself changes. He understood what Eisenhower meant when he said, “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Too often, team members unconsciously feel that they did a bad job of planning if the plan changes. We refer to changes to the plan as corrective action, implying that an error was made and it needs to be corrected. Overcoming this psychological hurdle is difficult, but not impossible. Using range estimates to develop budgets can help. Small gestures like putting the plan under version control can send an important message. At a minimum, every project manager needs to learn to smile when informed of the need to make a change to the plan.

Problem 3: Team members don’t enjoy planning
This problem is the biggest problem, and it is a natural outgrowth of #2. Because many team members view changes as a sign that they did something wrong, and because changes are inevitable, they often look at the plan as a massive collection of their mistakes. No plan = no mistakes. Look at it this way: if you are good at bridge and bad at chess, which will you play? Your team members will do everything they can to get to the fun stuff.

Here again, you have a psychological barrier to overcome. Addressing the first two problems helps. After that, the key is to help your team get some joy from planning. Here are some simple ideas:
  • Give them exposure to senior management by including the team in project definition activities.
  • Have a pool to predict how many activities will actually start or finish on time.
  • Make planning hands-on by using Post-Its to develop your Work Breakdown Structure and risk lists.
  • Have lunch brought in during the planning session.
  • Have bottled water and a mixture of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks available at all times even if you have to pay for it yourself.
If your team won’t plan, don’t let the three obvious reasons distract you. Attack the real causes:
__ Make sure that your sponsors understand the implications of planning too early. Tell them how you are planning. Tell them why the incremental approach is best. Tell them how accurate (or inaccurate) your current predictions are. And update them frequently as your predictions become more reliable and more accurate.
__ Help your team understand the value of good planning. I often use a reverse-psychology approach where I ask them to describe how they personally suffered on a previous project when the planning was poorly done.
__ Make it fun! You can find thousands of icebreakers online, or you can invest in one of the many books on the subject. Pick something that works for you and that is appropriate for the project.

And remember ... proper project planning prevents pathetically poor performance while pacifying problematic patrons and partners!

Previously by the author: “Do You Know Where Your Scope Is?” and “Fixing the Triple Constraint”
William R. Duncan is a principal of Project Management Partners, a project management consulting and training firm. He was the primary author of the original version of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, and his "process model" of project management was used to organize ISO 10006, Guidelines for Quality in Project Management. He currently heads the certification program for the American Society for the Advancement of Project Management.

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The key to those three points is having a well-assessed grand picture. We will touch on the development of a well-assessed grand picture on a later post.

1 comment:

Siddoo said...

what does this abbreviation "DAO" of strategy stand for??