Blog Barista: Bob Marquis, CPA, PMP | May 24th, 2022 | Project Management | Brew time: 4 min
How much planning should go into a project? Over-planning is inefficient, but under-planning can lead to major project issues. This is why I’ve outlined some practical tips to help you find the right balance.
First, understand that planning is hard work. It can be tedious and mentally draining. So, many of us try to avoid it. But in the long run, if we want a project to be easy and run smoothly, we have to work hard at planning it.
Who Is Responsible for Planning
Keep in mind that it is not the project manager’s (PM’s) job to do the planning. This expectation should be made clear at the very start. The project team has to do the planning. This is because it’s the planning that matters, not the plan. General Eisenhower said it best, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” A plan, without thoughtful planning behind it, is just a piece of paper. Planning is the process of talking through what needs to be done, collaborating, agreeing on the scope of the project, clarifying dependencies, figuring out who is going to do what, recognizing resource constraints, identifying risks, and more. All of this is what matters. The plan just documents all of this hard work.
It is, however, the PM’s job to drive the right amount of planning. This comes from experience, from understanding the project, and from understanding the project environment. PMs need to balance the planning effort against its value. The cost and overhead of project planning have to be weighed against the complexity and risk of the project. Too much planning for a simple, low-risk project does not add value. Not enough planning for a complex, high-risk project is a recipe for disaster.
It is also the PM’s job to organize the plan. Some people are happy to help plan but they are “stream of consciousness” verbalizers. They just say or write whatever comes to mind. The PM has to corral these thoughts, organize them, and document them. Breaking the work down into mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive workstreams helps the team organize their thoughts and ensure that nothing gets missed.
It’s important to recognize that not everyone is a planner. Some people gravitate toward planning but others would rather dive right in and figure things out as they go. PMs need to recognize that different people have different feelings toward planning.
Make sure the team understands the planning process. Will it all be upfront, or will it be in phases? Don’t compromise on the level of planning required for any given project but find a planning process that the sponsor will support and that the team will buy into.
Make sure the right people – and only the right people – are involved. Having too many people involved is usually counterproductive. Team leads and/or key resources should do the planning. Not every team member needs to be involved. If additional information is needed, the planners can follow up to get it. However, after a plan is drafted, team leads should carefully review the draft with their teams to validate it and get team commitment to it.
Again, teams often want the PM to do the planning. But the PM’s job is to ask questions more than answer them. Some questions to ask when planning include:
- Are project estimates (dates, resources, dependencies, costs) reasonable? How did the team arrive at them? Has the team considered all the other non-project work they have to do?
- Do assigned resources agree with the estimates? Have they committed to meeting them?
- Are all of the deliverables and necessary activities included? Or the opposite, are we doing work that is out of scope?
- What can go wrong?
- What haven’t we thought about?
- Has the team allowed time in the project for?
- Additional elaboration/planning as the project progresses
- Re-planning when things go wrong
- Risk and Issue mitigation activities
- Impact analyses of change requests
- Status and other reporting
- Ad-hoc requests
One other aspect of planning to be aware of is participants who consciously or unconsciously try to sabotage the planning process. Be aware of those who don’t want to plan and who argue that the effort/value isn’t worth it. Be ready to address common issues such as:
- People skipping planning meetings (escalate to sponsor)
- People saying, “we don’t need to document activities because we know what we need to do” (determine the necessary level of detail needed in the plan)
- Claims that the project changes too rapidly to plan (focus on near-term details first, then longer-term)
- We’re doers, not planners (build the high-level framework with a progressive elaboration of activities)
A final thought about planning; is that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” This quote has been attributed to a number of military leaders. “In the military, if it’s true no plan survives contact with the enemy (it doesn’t), and ‘war is chaos’ (it is), you’d expect the military to abandon the massive time and attention it lends to planning. However, military planning is the best, most deliberate planning there is. If you know the plan, you know the alternates, contingencies, and options available to everyone from the general to the private.”
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