How much is just right when planning a project?
There’s a continuum that exists between planning projects to the nth degree and relying on sorting problems as they arise. Some of the motivators for acting in the latter, ‘troubleshooting’ mode are:
- planning a project isn’t regarded as progress, and management often instinctively, feel very uncomfortable when progress is not visible (and resources are, perhaps, idle).
- there is a perception that the things that will go wrong will be able to be fixed as they occur. And this is without too much delay and expense.
- everyone loves a hero. Project managers who miraculously save the day despite the odds are lauded as heroes. (Indiana Jones movies where nothing ever went wrong would be short and lack excitement, wouldn’t they?)
- this project is very similar to those that we’ve run in the past, so how hard can it be?
So, what's the 'right' amount of planning?
Well, that all depends. On:
- The severity of impacts that may occur. If people might be injured or die, then not taking planning a project seriously will definitely be culpable. On the other hand, if the worst that can happen is that we may need to nip out to get a bottle of milk, then lots of planning will probably be time and effort wasted.
- The degree of uncertainty that surrounds the project. Our choices in the face of uncertainty are research, purchase of information, or make assumptions (which will require review at regular intervals). The nature of the uncertainty (e.g. scale of solution, detailed requirements) is likely to inform your response. What’s important is recognising there’s times when decisions must be made, despite there being insufficient information to decide with certainty.
- The degree of risk that surrounds the project. This is one of the primary drivers for the adoption of project management approaches. What we know inside out and back-to-front is business-as-usual.
As it becomes less understood, the comfort blanket of a project management wrapper becomes more attractive. It’s a risk management vehicle. Taking a considered view of the things that might go wrong may help to avoid some of the pitfalls. More importantly, planning a project may make the stakeholders consider that the reward doesn’t justify the risks. This may lead to the belief that a more reliable (but expensive) approach is preferable. Don’t imagine that there’s an ‘official’ level of risk that’s acceptable. If your project falls into the “if we can’t do it by date X, don’t bother” category, the business is more likely to accept risk than if it’s of the “failure here will get us on the front pages of the newspapers” variety.
Typically, if your organisation expects detailed and well-thought-through plans, then the only danger in undertaking a ‘no brainer’ project is that it’ll take a bit longer and cost a bit more than necessary. On the other hand, if you are used to running projects which have many common features, and your latest project assignment is very different from the norm, you need to be much more wary as the downside is a project debacle.