Project Planning – the 4th Dimension

Project plans are often thought of has having three key parameters:

  • Scope – what you plan to do and the standard you intend to meet
  • Cost / Budget – How much you intend to spend [taking all resources into account] and
  • Time/ schedule – How long you expect the project to take.

Different project types / styles and levels complexity require different levels of sophistication but the basic principles remain the same.

What I’ve noticed in many major projects that the proposed method of implementing the project is less well defined than the other aspects at sanction. This is a major error – not only to do the three elements mentioned above depend on the assumed approach but it is crucial that they are all mutually compatible and consistent. The four elements are in tension with each other, so altering one will affect all the others.

Tensions between elements of the project plan

There is a severe risk that the budget will be based on one implementation approach whilst the schedule is based on another. Simple examples of this can often be seen in TV property development programmes where, for example, – the budget is based on the developer doing the work whilst the schedule [and anticipated quality] is based on employing professionals. These assumptions are incompatible and problems are likely to surface as the work proceeds.

In professional circles, the risk of major discrepancies of this type is lower but can still exist, particularly if the development stages have not been based on effective dialogue [see an earlier post in this series – Make sure everyone is doing the same project.] This risk is heightened if the various elements of the plan are put together by separate teams with inadequate attention to communication. Similarly, there is a danger that the implementation approach will be changed late in the definition phase with assumptions being made on the likely impact on other aspects of the project. The nuances of assumed changes of approach can easily be missed and the implications of, for example, undertaking design work in-house rather than contracting it out can be underestimated.

Difficulties of this type can surface on seemingly minor sub-projects which become more important as work proceeds. There is a natural tendency to focus on major and critical items. This can lead to the team being blindsided when a significant minor but sub-critical element, which may have received only scant attention in the development phase, is delayed or cannot be sourced.

It is critical that the:

  • Budget
  • Scope / Standard
  • Schedule and
  • Implementation approach

Are all congruent with each other and prepared to an equivalent level of detail / sophistication. Saying “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” is unlikely to be good enough and is often a reliable predictor of problems ahead!

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  • David  On January 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    What are good techniques to identify those “significant minor but sub-critical element(s)” that may be “delayed or cannot be sourced”?

    Is it a case of starting a detailed risk register early in scope development? Perhaps some items (such as a particular skill being in demand at a certain time) will still escape that early risk register.

    • Jim Yates - Fulcrum UK  On January 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm

      Thanks David

      It’s a good idea to have a risk register right from the start and really what you need is a different mindset on planning. Too often effort is only focused on the critical / major items, this means that when something which is not currently critical [and which might seem to be of little importance] slips, it can delay the whole job. This can be particularly a problem when there appears to be a lot of float. I’ve seen installation delayed because no one remembered to order the holding down bolts.

      A parallel issue is that it may not be possible to take advantage of getting ahead of programme on one item because the next most critical item isn’t available. I’ve even seen money being spent to accelerate one activity to meet its scheduled deadline and then no further progress being possible because of a delay elsewhere. For example rushing to finish foundations for equipment which itself was delayed.

      Without the right mindset and effective communication, you can throw good money after bad.

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