Planning is a way of proactively knowing what we are doing, before we do it. However, there is always a plan running – even when we don’t think we have a plan. Knowing this plan and accounting for it in our project management tools can vault us to success.
If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. Do you believe that?
I once observed a manager send out a note telling everyone to “stop working, we are going to change our plan and we don’t yet know what the change is!” Is this the way you change a plan?
Planning and changing plans is as much an art as it is a science. I look primarily at three things when I am the new guy in charge of a project or even an organization.
- What is the current plan? Where will we end up if we just keep doing what we are doing?
- What is the official plan? What does everyone (senior management and our customers in particular) think we are doing?
- What should we be doing?
Let’s look at these three areas over the next few articles.
You don’t think you have a plan? Yes you do. Just stop and look what people are doing. They are doing something – working towards some goal. In even the most dysfunctional organizations, I still find lots of activity with all the associated urgency and stress. Only once did I ever find folks sitting around, reading newspapers (no network access at that time due to security) and not working towards some goal.
You may be able to find the current plan written down somewhere. Usually however it is similar to whatever was done in the past. This is the “normal” process of the organization. This is what people will do in the absence of any other direction. It is also what they will often do in spite of any other direction. This is both a strength and a weakness of any organization.
If you spend time figuring out this plan, you will learn a lot about your organization. Often much more than you currently know, even if you’ve been in the organization for a long time.
For example, I rolled on to a project that was in the final months before delivery of the product to our customers. I spent about three days talking to everyone. I simply asked them what they were doing and what everyone else was doing. This second question was key. Even when I had been told what someone’s role was (usually by their manager), I still asked them and everyone else what is it that this person does.
On this particular project it became quickly clear that there was a huge disconnect between how management saw what was going on and what was actually taking place. The humorous part of this story is that when I highlighted the disconnects, so we could align them, I was told that it was my responsibility to do all the things that were not getting done along with a demand of why they were not yet done! I am not kidding and yes, I was there only a couple of weeks when this happened. This was also a project using the “B” team and was to end up with great quality and be our 2nd best selling product next to our epic selling product that had changed the industry. The fact that management was unaware of the real plan and had neglected the team turned out to be a blessing in disguise (more on that in Project Management Tools “B” Team).
The first takeaway is that the current plan can be critical and not knowing this plan before implementing a plan change, can results in some very unsuccessful planning efforts and can undermine the successes that do exist. In the above example the current plan was far superior to the official plan and I almost wrecked things by highlighting to management the differences. While I don’t recommend not knowing what is going on as a project management tool (but, see Being Slightly Out Of Control Can Be A Good Thing), in this case continuing the benevolent neglect by more senior management turned out to be the best approach.
While most process improvement methodologies suggest determining the “as-is” process or plan before making a change, I use a method which was strongly influenced by my early military intelligence training. I talk to people and look for evidence for what is going on, but I don’t assume any one source or document is definitive. I try to corroborate whatever I hear, read or see with multiple sources of agreement. In the intelligence field we would always look for multiple supporting (and historically reliable) sources to increase the confidence in what we believed was happening. My favorite project management tool is to just have a large whiteboard and add notes to it on people, roles, schedules and plans, as I get information. The purpose is not to know some definitive exact project management plan, but instead to see what is actually going on, including the typical disconnects or disagreements that exist.
Notice that I used interchangeably “process” and “plan.” Let me explain. Most plans, say for a new product development, are really just particular instances of the existing organizational processes. So a plan, in many ways, is nothing more than a summary, at a high level, of how the existing people+processes+tools will proceed. Plans generally use existing processes and don’t try to, and should not try to, tell how something will be done. Knowing the current plan is often nothing more than understanding the real processes of the organization.
The second takeaway is that there is a plan, something people are doing and following, and it is to our advantage to know this plan as well as possible. It often is not the same as the official plan so before making changes to the official plan, we will want to employ project management tools to truly understand this current plan. Next , we will take a look at official plans in light of our new insights on the actual plans (The Official Plan: Four Project Management Planning Secrets).