Project Planning

You can’t produce reality by planning

It’s important to realize that even though you have created the perfect project plan by using the correct template, referencing the proper methods, and communicated it to stakeholders, reality will change it.
Monitoring these changes is an important task for a project manager, but has no value without acting on them and communicating the consequences.
Therefore the plan should be updated often to be a product of reality, and a common ground for decision making, communication, educated guesses and opportunities. This is what makes a project move forward, in reality.

Mistakes and stakeholders

At any given time, you can only make a plan based on the knowledge available at that time.
Not having foreseen an event, or not knowing every detail in a future process does not automatically imply incompetence or negligence. And don’t forget, not all surprises are negative.
The plan you make, should however prevent you from repeating mistakes, and should include processes to learn, take advantage of opportunities and make new decisions together with the stakeholders.
No project has an unlimited budget, timeline and scope. So before the project begins, understanding the project management triangle in this context is essential for all project members and stakeholders as a basis for decisions.

  1. “Making mistakes is the key to making progress.”
  2. “The secret is knowing when and how to make mistakes, so that nobody gets hurt and everybody can learn from the experience”

– Daniel Dennett. How Things Are, J. Brockman and K. Matson, eds., William Morrow and Company, New York, 1995. pp. 137-144. : http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/howmista.htm

Before you start

Know where you are going. Making good decisions in a project often comes down to knowing the overall goals. The same goes for initial planning. If the goals are not crystal clear, you cannot make a long term plan or expect to end the project. In this case make a plan for crystallizing the goals. You might find that different stakeholders have different goals, and aligning the stakeholders before you start is well worth the effort, compared to a never ending project.

Don’t make the plan

Present the goals! And then get input from the people who will do the actual work, or input to the process. The plan should be a transcription of their input, seasoned with your experience and knowledge. This is an important step as it also commits the team to the plan, which increases the likelihood of it actually being realised.

The kind of input you need is

  • Activities
    • Duration
    • Flow
  • Proces
    • Dependencies
  • Communication lines
    • Who needs to know what, when and how
  • Risks
    • Mistakes
      • Mitigation
    • Opportunities
      • Adaptation
  • Resources
    • Humans are not robots
  • Organization
    • Who makes decisions about the goals
    • Who makes decisions about changing the timeplan

A team’s understanding of the above, gives you all the building blocks you need, to create a timeline that’s realistic within the planning horizon. And the team is committed and self reliant in making short term scheduling decisions.

The horizon and beyond

You have your building blocks and can now make an initial timeline for the project.
The start up activities are certain, and you can start to focus on the future.
The longer into the future you look, the more uncertain your plan is. Since you “didn’t make the plan” you can trust your team to handle current activities, freeing you to look up, towards the horizon, to verify agreements, align expectations and clear the critical path to increase the certainty of your plan.

Sacrifice your plan on the altar of goals

If you find yourself planning current events most of your time, things are not going great. And that means you are not planning next week – which means more trouble next week. This happens, as we know mistakes are made, or opportunities must be seized. But continuing like this for a longer period of time will almost certainly cause your project to fail. In this situation of prolonged reactive planning, you should discard your plan, find the root cause and fix it. This will mean disappointing stakeholders, but you are already doing damage control, unsuccessfully.

Finalizing

The end of a project is never a date in a timeplan. The project ends when the stakeholders agree that goals have been reached.

The time of the project manager

Taking the above into consideration, you will roughly be spending your time as described below

Initially

Spend little time looking towards horizon
Spend most of your time on current events

  • Clarify goals
  • Present goals – make sure everyone understands priorities
  • “Don’t make the plan”

During

Spend little time on current events
Spend most of your time looking towards horizon

  • Clear the critical path
  • Align expectations

Problems arise

Spend little time looking towards horizon
Spend most of your time on current events

  • Find root cause
  • Learn
  • Know when to sacrifice the plan

Finalizing

Spend most of your time on current events
Spend little time looking towards horizon

  • Make sure stakeholders agree that the goals have been reached
  • Handover the product for the next phase in it life cycle

What about the past?

If you get good at learning from mistakes, and you know your goals, you don’t have to revisit the past.

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