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The official project management plan we are following may not be all that official and may not be the plan our team is following.  Getting the official plan and the current plan to be the same and reflected in our project management tools will help vault our project to success.  Here are four insights that have made a huge difference in the effectiveness of our plans.

Official Project Management Plan ToolsThe official plan is what it is that we are trying to do and has visibility at levels higher than the team or organization carrying out the plan.  It may be to deliver a new product or maybe improve the way we do business.  It often has measurements (metrics, schedules, costs, ROI, etc.) associated with it that will be used to determine the success of the plan.

In Yes Virginia, There Is A Project Management Plan, the official plan — what the senior management team thought was going on — was significantly different than what was actually going on.  This is fairly normal to some degree.  This is also where we will find the huge disconnects that exist.

Typically, we will see an official plan that will deliver a product or complete a project in say three months, but what really happens is that it gets completed in six months.  Often people will ascribe to this lateness problems of execution or somesuch.  In fact — in my experience and observation — it is often better stated as a disconnect between the official plan and the actual current plan.  Rarely have I ever seen a huge disconnect, such as delivering a product six months late, where everyone was saying “gee, we just missed that one big thing and that is the reason we were late.”  Huge disconnects are usually voiced early on in the project and are fairly self evident at the end.  I have seen organizations, however, who were use to regularly delivering late with buggy quality and so everyone just accepted that fact and pressed on without too much vocal or written disagreement.

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Here are four insights to planning that have helped us avoid these planning disconnects.
Project management tool plan direction or description

1. Decide If Planning Is Direction Or Description

The purpose of an official plan is to provide everyone direction, yes?  Possibly.  However, for many organizations the purpose of the official plan is to describe for everyone what is going to happen.  There is a distinct difference here.  The first approach the plan provides direction and assumes that planning is what causes the project to happen.  The second approach, planning as a description, is better thought of as discovering what it is the organization is going to do in executing the project.  For large or complex organizations, the second approach is probably a more accurate picture of what planning should be all about.  Organizations that consistently under-perform in delivering on projects are often planning by trying to provide well meaning but misguided direction when they should to be planning by trying to figure out how the organization will really carry out the project.

2. Planning Is Not Change Management

Too often, a plan is used as a change management tool.  Instead of the project plan being a description of how the current capability of the organization will deliver the product or service, it becomes a statement of how the organization will suddenly perform differently than it has in the past.  The process of producing this kind of plan is typically to “encourage” folks to agree to accomplishing things they have not accomplished in the past.   Again, what is observed in these kind of organizations are “poorly executed plans” that don’t deliver what they said they would deliver.  In fact, these are often official plans that are strongly at odds with the current capabilities of the team or organization.

There is nothing wrong with managing change in an organization to improve productivity and quality.  The problem arises when the technique to make these changes is by simply inserting them into a plan as a new goal or requirement (or an innocent looking checklist item).  Change management is a project management discipline in its own right and one can rarely accomplish a successful change by simply stating claims of new organizational capabilities or achievements in an official plan. (See secrets to making project management tool silver bullets work for more change management ideas.)

Always Have A Current Project Management Plan

3. Always Have A Current Plan

We always strived to have a current official plan. If someone asks to see our plan, we can always give them something.  Always. I took over an organization where I needed to have a plan that covered the next five years.  Since this was a multinational government controlled organization, the plan was something that everyone would use and reference.  It was what would be approved by eleven nations. It would have to be formally changed before we did anything differently.

My first five year plan fit on a single sheet of paper.  But it was complete with what we knew at the time.  It had all the current assumptions and goals.  It grew significantly with time and understanding .  The key was we could show a plan at all times.  We always knew what we were doing, and could effectively communicate it.   The size of the plan, while important to many, was never as important as having laid out everything we knew at the moment.  Having this current plan and constantly sharing it made a huge difference in productivity and focus over previous plans that were jealously guarded until “finished.”

4. Only Write A Plan That We Will Use

Many organizations required us to have a published and approved document or to update an on-line system (Microsoft Project Plan, etc.) in order to have a recognized plan.   The folks at the Software Engineering Institute use to call many of these plans, POTS:  Plan On The Shelf.  We wrote the plan, got it approved, put it on our book shelf in a big binder and never looked at it again (now they are on-line in big Word documents, PDF files or content management systems).  Too often these plans were because the organization subscribes to some standard (ISO, SEI, etc.) that had a checklist requirement for “a plan.”  So we write the plan, get it approved, get it out of the way and then we move on to doing real work that moves our project forward.   Either make it a real plan we intend to use or just don’t do it (if politically and culturally possible).   It was amazing the productivity and focus improvements when we either quit doing the “required plan” or we turned it into a real plan that we used everyday.

When the official plan aligns with the current plan — what the organization is actually doing- – we will have a much more effective project or organization.  Make sure our plan describes what we are actually doing — as opposed to what we wish we were doing; that it is not chocked full of “then a miracle appears” assumptions; that we always have a current plan we can share; and that we only write a plan that is actually to be used by everyone.  Next we will look at Visibility: The Fifth Project Planning Secret.

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