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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