Monthly Archives: March 2012

Project Planning – you need be sensitive as well as critical

Planning Process

In an earlier post, I suggested looking at planning as map-making for an expedition. Planning also requires elements of “Process Thinking” as it incorporates three key functions:

  1. Identification of all activities and constraints
  2. Development of the project logic
  3. Estimation of task duration

The key objectives are to identify the required sequence of events, assess the interaction between them and determine the overall timescale for the project.

Planning Problems

In my experience, three things go wrong in this process:

  1. Participants don’t fully understand the interactions between the various activities, especially the “virtual” constraints – where nothing physical happens (e.g. getting planning permission, awaiting drawing approval etc.)
  2. Over optimistic assessment of durations
  3. Fixation on the “Critical Path”

The Danger of “the Critical Path”

This may lead to over ambitious timescales being promised, excessive focus on a few issues and an over emphasis on physical activities. Often it is forgotten that the calculated “Critical Path” depends on the accuracy of the estimates of task / activity duration – change the estimates: change the critical path. Estimates by their very nature are approximate and therefore the impact of variations in these estimates needs to be evaluated.

In consequence a delay may occur when some virtual activity over runs, causing an activity well off the calculated Critical Path to affect the entire schedule.

What is needed, in addition to rigorous investigation is to undertake some sensitivity analysis and recognition that:

  1. Estimates are only estimates
  2. The implementation may take a different route to that planned
  3. You may be “fooled” by the technology – just because it looks neat on the printout, it doesn’t mean it will be plain sailing.
Typical Project Schedule

Project Schedule

It’s the quality of the thinking that matters

What matters is that you think about your plan effectively. Planning is about thinking processes not software.

For the sake of a nail

AFalling Rocks Road Sign common feature of delays in “virtual” activities is that durations can expand in steps, they can accumulate and affect broad sections of the project. The non-arrival of vendor drawings could prevent an application for planning permission causing a a scheduled council meeting to be missed. A delay of one day in one task may lead to a delay of a month or so in the next activity. You might term this a landslide, which emphasises the need to understand the landscape of your project rather than the route map!

You need to be sensitive to the potentials for delay and don’t focus solely on the calculated Critical Path. The real route will be different to the planned journey. Be prepared for the rocks that may fall in your way, you will need to find a way around them.

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Being “Best in Breed” may not make you “Top Dog”!

In services it is very difficult to differentiate yourself from your competition and it is even more of a problem for professional service organisations. It is very difficult to be distinctive, memorable and stand out from the crowd when everybody is qualified, capable and seems to be the same.

One route you can take is to become the very best at what your business does – what you might call a “Best in breed” strategy – but is this the best way forward?

“Best in Breed” Strategy

In a dog show, such as Crufts which has just finished, the best in breed winner is the dog which most closely matches the “breed standard”, it ticks all the boxes and has no faults but you have to ask whether the fine distinctions which gain favour from the judges are noticeable let alone memorable to the general public. And of course, there is only room for one “best in breed”.

Moving into the business arena, being “best in breed” may be a useful approach if you have a very narrow niche or have the resources to get ahead of and stay ahead of the competition but it won’t work for most businesses. You need to be different, you need to have personality and you need to build a community of customers who value who you are and how you do what you do. That’s what makes you “you”, makes you distinctive and makes customers [and employees] come to you.

Distinctive and Memorable?

Family DogYou need to have the key elements of the “breed standard” demonstrate capability but it is the other factors which make you distinctive and memorable. Unless you want to compete in Dog Shows, you don’t pick your family dog because of how closely it matches the standard!

All your competitors will have similar:

  • People [qualifications and experience]
  • Processes
  • Experience

Or they wouldn’t be in the business. You need to find a way of being different and that is best achieved through your people and your processes [what you do and how you do it]. To turn some customers on you may have to take the risk of turning some off, not everyone will like what you do and if you try to please everyone, you will end up being bland! You need what my friend Andrew Thorpe calls a “Marmite Pitch”

Very good but very ordinary

If you want to stand out from the crowd, you can’t be ordinary and it is very easy to be very good but very ordinary. Barry Gibbons then of Burger King was quoted by  Tom Peters’ as saying “Even when we did it right, it was still very ordinary”

Ordinary is not memorable and it’s not distinctive.

Extraordinary Expertise

Whether you are in:

  • Accountancy
  • Law
  • Architecture
  • Engineering
  • Project Management
  • Financial Services

You and your people need to be extraordinary and that means paying attention to how you do things and how you interact with your customers, it’s not about getting better at what you do. That is obvious and easy to copy – if you can do it, everyone else can do it. To be distinctive and memorable and maintain this, you need to get brilliant at things that your competition doesn’t take seriously.

This means building outstanding customer care, building strong customer relations and giving your team extraordinary expertise by developing what are often called “soft skills” but they are not soft, they are hard and they are crucial to your business success. You need to encourage enterprise and build distinctive capabilities.

You don’t get to be top dog by being best in breed!