Figuring out the difference between the official project management plan and the actual plan people are carrying out provides deep insights into how your organization is performing. Discovering this difference often provides a launching pad for rapidly aligning and improving your organization’s productivity and on time delivery of products and services.
Previously, we covered the observation that there was often a difference between the official project management plan and what people were actually doing (see Yes Virginia, There Is A Project Management Plan). This is somewhat normal in that what people do will often change faster than any published project management plan. Often however the differences are because of flawed planning processes that in many ways operate independently of the actual management process people will follow. Many project plans will naively try to tell the organization how to do their work when in fact they should assist everyone by describing how everyone does their part of the effort. This is often characterized by plans that attempt to “legislate” organizational changes or new capabilities by inserting them into project plans (see The Official Plan: Four Project Management Tool Secrets). We also touched on how planning is often done in a covert environment, where plans are guarded jealously or kept restricted until they achieve some unobtainable perfect state (see Visibility: The Fifth Project Management Tool Planning Secret).
While coming to understand the current plan we’ve also found it useful to look into senior management scorecards and policies, industry trends, standards and government regulations. In the military, for example, this usually included researching all the various higher command regulations and digging through the various edicts sent out by the Pentagon. It was not uncommon to find various policies that were at odds with each other. In fact we’ve found “help” from higher headquarters for what we were trying to accomplish when we found the original authors of the various policies and regulations. They were ecstatic that someone knew of their changes and were often willing to help us understand and implement them.
Once we’ve uncovered the differences between the official project plan, the actual plan being carried out, regulations, industry trends, etc., we have an opportunity to reconcile these differences to the benefit of the project and the organization. This is also where leadership can be exercised.
The trick here is that the process of discovery that highlighted the differences often generated interest and momentum by the folks involved. As we worked to find the differences and as we tried to reconcile them, we also have been asking people what it is we should be doing now. This whole investigative process by itself is often a major catalyst for changing or updating the project plan. It has also worked to reaffirm that the plan being carried out was aligned and was what we wanted to be doing. Making use of this momentum either to make a change or to confirm the plan is a key opportunity to get the plan to match what we should be doing.
In some cases, especially in government, I’ve found that getting everyone to work the official plan was often the best course of action. A significant number of the government initiatives I’ve worked (military in my case) turned out to be very good with very sound reasons behind them. The trick was to rediscover this original purpose and get us back to that purpose and goal. Frequently, the impetus for these government plans were legislated so trying to change them significantly would be a challenge. In the case of the corporate world, getting support and momentum behind an updated plan was often the most effective approach. Often, ineffective plans were based upon well meaning but not well thought out improvement notions so “adjusting” the plan was a good course of action (see for example: Seven Ways to Make That Silver Bullet Work).
Another time to revisit the plan is when it seems like we don’t have much of a plan or that there is a clear disconnect between what we are doing and what all those strategy documents and electronic dashboards are saying. I watched for months as the senior VP dashboard in one Fortune 50 company would show all new plans as green (on track, on schedule), all plans that were more than a few months old were yellow (off track, but recoverable) and all plans/products in their last six months were red (off track, unrecoverable, replanning). No one even saw the meaning of the colors any more. Green now meant a new plan, yellow was a plan in mid process, and red was a plan trying to deliver its product. It was the perfect implementation of a color coding system that was then ignored because fixing the problem would mean folks would have to be brutally honest (see brutal honesty at a project management tool).
Finally, with any plan, there are key underlying assumptions that really give the plan form and direction. It is these key assumptions that are critical, not the details of how we will leverage these assumptions. By their nature, these foundational assumptions won’t change quickly. So if we are planning based upon assumptions that change every few months, then we probably don’t have a good basis for our plan. A Dilbert comic strip showed Dilbert challenging a product that when delivered in a year would be better than current competitors’ products that were shipping. Dilbert asked would not the competitor have its own new product out by the time their product shipped in a year? We want to make sure our plan is based upon assumptions that are not likely to change during the period of the project. This is also why we need to deliver our project on time (see getting the project management tool schedule right), because if we don’t our assumptions may no longer hold true and hence our product or service may no longer be competitive.
How you align your plan, if it needs aligning at all, will depend upon the differences you find. The process of discovering these differences by talking with people and investigating governance will often provide interest and momentum for making needed changes. The bottom line is to align your plan with what it is you really should be doing which may be noticeably different than your current project management plan.