Your project went off the rails, and your boss – who doesn’t care about the complexities of the project and only wants to not be embarrassed in front of her boss – is chewing your butt because it looks like lousy planning and execution. She wants to see the detailed project plan in two days. You know the team had a detailed project plan but it fell apart two weeks after the start.
For the umpteenth time, you wonder how useful planning really is.
Experienced project managers agree with these statements:
- Planning is helpful and important.
- Planning without execution is wasteful of time, energy, and attention.
- Execution without planning can go awry.
- “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” (Helmuth von Moltke) Also known as “Stuff happens.”
The key question becomes: “What’s the right amount of planning?”
[Note: I am assuming that you have a clear idea of the objective. You know what success looks like. You understand the priority outcome. If you don’t know this, no amount of planning helps.]
If you’re willing to learn from data and experience during the execution phase, you need direction and some way to evaluate “success,” but you need only plan for allocating people and the first set of tasks. This is what’s behind the maneuver warfare strategy of “Commander’s Intent.” The objective is clear, but the details evolve.
Effective project leaders “play chess” and think out possible second and third moves. The dialogue in your head sounds like this: “We do X and the two most likely responses are Y and Z. If Y, then we have these options, but if Z we have a different set of options. And the most unexpected responses are….”
The key is to develop some flexible planning scenarios with contingency plans, coupled with a healthy dose of paying attention. Leaders must recognize the world is complex and you have imperfect information. Invest time and energy into “sensing” what is going on with your project or initiative.
One of the most significant things to anticipate are delays and extensions of work. A large percentage of project failures happen because some activity on the critical path became significantly delayed. How will you respond when (not if, when) this happens? What new options come into play?
If you’re unwilling to learn from data and experience during the execution phase, you’ll need substantial planning coupled with extraordinary luck that your plan will work out exactly as planned. The consistent failure of 5 year, 3 year, and even 6 month plans should make us sober.
The Agile Manifesto recommends favoring:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
Avoid these two rookie mistakes:
- Building the perfect plan, and assuming everything works out exactly like you expect.
- Saying “We don’t plan.” Don’t pay that stupidity tax. Knowing your objective, develop a starting plan, and work through scenarios of how the next steps could unfold.
Bonus leadership tip: Notice how people react to more planning and less planning scenarios for clues about their risk orientation. Some people are simpler happier staying in the planning phase than taking the risks of action. Other people are too impatient to do more than cursory planning. Most of us recognize that in a VUCA world we need to be in observe/learn/adapt cycles much more than we need to be in detailed planning for massive projects. But you’ll find that not everyone agrees with that statement.