Category Archives: Planning

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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Four project management lessons from the BRIT awards

Listening to some of the coverage of the BRIT music awards and the problems that delays caused for star of the show Adele – and her reaction, reminded me of a conversation I had about project scheduling at the start of a major capital project.

The conversation involved me, experienced Project Manager Barry Ryan and our mutual client. In reality, I was a bit of a bystander but the message was valid. The conversation when a bit like this:

Barry: How does a project get to be six months behind schedule?

Client: I’ve done lots of projects but never got to the bottom of that one.

Barry: Well, its one day at a time.

Wise words!

So, what’s the message from this for project management [and time management and event planning for that matter]:

  1. You need to be vigilant from the start – especially if things slow down
  2. You need to understand what is important to all of the stakeholders
  3. You have to be clear about your objectives and
  4. You have to know what you can cut and what you can’t – understand the landscape of the project

If you don’t you’ll get no choice and will end up having to cut what comes towards the end – which may be the most important part.

Project Planning as Map Making

This is the second post on the “Project Thinking” sub-theme which has emerged from the “Thinking Styles” theme.

Planning Importance and Experience

Anyone who has been involved with projects will be aware of the importance of planning and most will have war stories about what has worked and what has not. In my view, planning is misunderstood by many people and often fails as a result.
The key issues are:

  • You need to understand the “landscape” of the project before you can come up with a sensible plan and the ability to respond to what is discovered on the journey [project].
  • The process and the communication involved are usually more important than the plan.
  • The plan is a by-product of the thinking: poor thinking = poor plan.
  • The plan is the current best guess based on what we know now.
  • Reality will be different to what has been planned but forewarned is forearmed.

I aim to set the scene here and will return to the theme in a later post.

Planning and Understanding

To thoroughly understand the project you need to know its geography and perhaps the underlying geology. You need to be able to answer the following questions:

Plans as Maps

To be able to do this effectively there is a need for a series of plans of different types. This is similar to the different types of map needed to understand an area.

  • Broad picture – atlas style
  • More detailed – road map style
  • Detailed – street map / ordnance survey style
  • Specialist presentations – demographics / geological maps

The key difference in a project context is that you have to create each of these maps yourself! In many cases, the starting point and desired end point are known and often the journey time is specified [perhaps with little reference to what needs to be done and the prevailing conditions] but the terrain which needs to be crossed is not known in sufficient detail. Consequently, it makes sense to think of the journey ahead as an exploration. Most projects are one offs: the participants will have been on similar expeditions in the past but will never have been on this precise journey before.

The plan and the journey

To continue the metaphor, the expedition [project] leader will know where they are starting from and the height and location of the mountain they need to climb but not have any idea of how hospitable the terrain between the starting point and the destination is:

  • Are there rivers to ford?
  • Intermediate mountain ranges to traverse?
  • Deserts to cross?

There is also the potential for an imbalance between the route to be taken and the resources available, the fitness of the team and the tools available. There is a danger [see Project Planning – the 4th Dimension] that the timing will be set on the basis of optimum resources and the budget set on a less generous basis.

Project planning as a change process

As with any change process, involving the team in the process is really helpful both in terms of arriving at better solutions, reducing resistance and gaining commitment. If they produce the map and understand the landscape they are crossing then they will be both more focused on producing a good map [their success depends on it] and secondly, they will be aware of options on how to accommodate changes in circumstances. This will lead to greater motivation and less stress when the inevitable diversions become necessary.

It also is likely to lead to a more helpful understanding of the purpose of the plan and degree of confidence to be placed in the current plan. The mind-set becomes one of accepting the plan as being the current best [informed] guess of the best way forward and an understanding that some of the fine details of the route will only become apparent when one ventures into the unknown.

Remember, without involvement, there is no commitment; so, worry less about producing the plan and put more effort into facilitating the planning process and developing a shared understanding of the expedition.