“Can you manage a project without planning?”
I ask this question to participants in our project management workshops around the world. Regardless of where I’m teaching, participants typically respond as follows:
Multiple people will say, “No!” Then someone will say, “Well….” Then another person will admit, “We do it all the time!”
I suppose it could depend on how we define the term manage. And since the question starts with the word Can, I suppose one could try to manage a project without planning.
So let’s re-frame the question. Let’s say Project A was insufficiently planned. It really needed more. Project B was sufficiently planned. It wasn’t over-planned, but there was enough of a plan to manage it. What are some of the possible consequences for Project A—the insufficiently planned project?
Often people suggest the consequences of a poorly planned project include:
- Missed deadlines
- Cost over-runs
- Frustrated team members
- Scope changes
- Missed expectations with scope
- Quality problems
Those seem reasonable, but let me ask this: could the sufficiently planned project miss some deadlines? Spend more than budgeted? Leave some team members a bit frustrated?
So Why Plan?
I once sat through a presentation where the speaker said, “Follow this process and you will be successful. I’ve never seen a project fail that followed this process.” Thinking he was perhaps using hyperbole to provoke discussion, I went up and talked with him after the session. He was adamant that his process guaranteed success.
What a Plan Gives You
In their book Decisive, authors Chip and Dan Heath talk about the value of having a process for making decisions. They suggest a process provides confidence. “Not cocky overconfidence that comes from collecting biased information and ignoring uncertainties, but the real confidence that comes from knowing you’ve made the best decision that you could. Using a process for decision-making doesn’t mean that your choices will always be easy, or that they will always turn out brilliantly, but it does mean you can quiet your mind. You can quit asking, ‘What am I missing?’ You can stop the cycle of agonizing.”
The same can be said for planning. We don’t plan because it removes all chances of failure. But a good plan increases our confidence that a project can meet its objectives. It’s a game of odds. We can agonize less because we’ve considered the project more thoughtfully, including what we think might go wrong.
The Payback for Planning
I’ve seen all kinds of numbers touting the payback for planning. One such finding suggested that one hour of planning will save 20-200 hours in later corrective activity. My first reaction to that was, “Wow! That’s a lot of savings!” However, my second reaction was, “Hmm, that’s a big range! It’s like predicting the high temperature in my hometown of Chicago will be between 10-100 degrees! It doesn’t help me know how to dress!”
I got in touch with Dr. Barry Boehm to get his perspective. He reinforced what we learn in quality training: finding a problem sooner is less expensive than finding it later. If a plan can weed out problems now, we can save many hours of re-work later on. The longer it takes to find the problems, the more expensive it is to fix (both in time and cost).
Let’s say the 20-200 hour range is wildly optimistic. What if the payback was only 2 hours of savings for every hour invested in planning? Would you take those odds at a casino? Put 1,000 Euros into a slot machine and get 2,000 in return? If you gambled, you’d play those odds all night!
It’s important to keep this in perspective. Don’t react with, “Let’s plan for the next 3 years! Think how much time we’ll save!”
However, what if you took an extra 15 minutes to think more thoroughly about the people who will be impacted by your project? Or took a couple of days to vet out the success criteria with your sponsor and key stakeholders? Or spent an extra hour identifying risks and coming up with mitigation plans? Is it reasonable it could save you time later in the project?
Decades of personal anecdotal experience suggests that Boehm is onto something. The cliché is “We don’t have time to do it right but we always seem to find the time to do it over.”
Why Don’t We Spend More Time Planning?
So if planning saves us time, why don’t we spend more time planning? I’ve found it’s not usually a philosophical objection to planning. Rather, it’s an issue of time! We don’t take the time because it seems we don’t have it.
Have you ever noticed that you can be penalized in the workplace when you get your act together, so to speak? A couple of years back I taught my sons how to juggle. Rookie jugglers normally start with one or two balls. Once they are able to handle that, what happens?
They’re thrown another ball. Then another. It can be like that in the workplace. “Sharon doesn’t look too stressed out… Give her more work!”
Many of us are juggling so many projects, it becomes a question of “which ball am I willing to drop in order to plan it out more?” The reality of many work environments is that we don’t seem to have the time necessary to plan our projects. So we just revert to a Ready-Fire-Aim mentality: just keep shooting—we’re bound to hit something! Just keeping working—hopefully it will all work out!
I am not suggesting you drop all projects and plan them out in extreme detail. If you’ve ever worked in a project environment that suffered from analysis paralysis, you are keenly aware of how that suffocates successful delivery. My goal is to help you best use the limited time that you have.
In future posts I’ll suggest some key questions that can help you plan just enough. Though that’s a subjective way to think about it, the goal is just enough documentation. Just enoughdesign. Just enough meetings.
Just enough planning.
So, can you manage a project without planning? Sure. But by planning a little better now, you can help reduce the agonizing hours of re-work later. That’s a wager you can bet on.
P.S. I’d love to hear your thoughts! What gets in the way of you planning more than you do? How do you manage the space between over- and under-planning?