July 25, 2013
Life is all about balance, live too conservatively and you run the risk of missing out on life’s adventures and opportunities. Live too wildly and you run the risk of misfortune and regret, we have to walk a fine line guided by our personal view of where that correct boundary is.
Planning is similar; the adages of “Look before you leap” and “Cross that bridge when we come to it” speak to the differing views towards project planning. However, instead of being guided by some moral compass, we should be guided by the quality of our planning inputs and likelihood of changes.
To some people a mentality of “Cross that bridge when we come to it” strikes them as the irresponsible abandonment of project management rigor and fiscal responsibility trusted to them by project sponsors. Why would you not always do as much planning as possible before starting a project? Surely, that is only right and proper! Well, not if doing so would be harmful, it all depends on the quality of that input data. When the input data is good, we can reliably plan, when the input data is bad, or the project’s final destination is likely to change then we need to get better data and keep evolving the plans.
When aiming at a fixed target it is appropriate to aim, aim, and aim some more and then fire. In the project world this is akin to plan, plan, and plan some more and then execute. However, when trying to hit a moving target this approach is ineffective. Where do you aim? Where the target is right now, where you think it might be next, where you hope it might be at completion time? Instead a different approach is needed; something more like a guided missile that makes many mid-course adjustments to hit a moving target.
When we know our project requirements may change, or there is technological uncertainty, or market volatility from competing products, we need to equip the projects with the abilities to make multiple mid-course adjustments. Instead of plan, plan, plan we point the team in the right direction, get them started and give them the tools and authority to make these mid-course adjustments through build feedback cycles to hit that moving target.
Jim Highsmith says it best, there are times when “You cannot plan away uncertainty; you have to execute away uncertainty”. It is not really in the best interests of the sponsor to consume project time and budget trying to plan something with incomplete or erroneous data. It would be more prudent to get closer to the problem, try a few things and then come up with a better plan now we have more information.
Yet this idea of doing less upfront planning presents a large obstacle to many stakeholders because the words we often use to describe exploratory information gathering are poor. For a start we don’t often call it “exploratory information gathering” instead using phrases like “we will build a small portion”, “start coding”, or “do a spike”. To people not familiar with why we are doing this work it seems counter intuitive and rash. So, we can do ourselves a favour and use words like “more data gathering”, “proof of concepts” and “options exploration” instead of “development” to explain the goal of this work.
Another tool we can use to convince the skeptics that less upfront planning is sometimes better value is the planning-risk graphs developed by Barry Boehm. The first risk presented by Boehm is the obvious risk of not doing enough planning and running into problems of people not knowing what they are doing, duplicating work, and building poor solutions that need to be corrected.
From the graph above, we can see that as more time is invested in planning, the risks due to inadequate plans reduce. While these risks are intuitive, there exists another set of risks that are less intuitive or obvious; the risks of doing too much upfront planning.
This second, red line denotes how the risks of creating very detailed, brittle plans that do not survive contact with reality increase as we spend more time planning. So too do the risks of delaying the project and getting a late Return On Investment (ROI) because the project spent too long in the planning phase.
So, while we want to do enough planning to avoid basic problems of oversight and rework, we also need to be aware of the risks of doing too much planning and reducing the benefits of undertaking the work or creating plans so detailed, project managers become slaves to updating plans when issues occur as opposed to the more important tasks of working with the project stakeholders to help determine the appropriate course of action.
Ideally then we want to find a sweet spot of planning that minimizes these two risk curves, effectively the lowest point of the sum of these risks.
Of course finding this “Goldilocks” sweet spot of the just-right amount of upfront planning will depend upon the characteristics of the project. Small projects with just a few people for a few months might not take long at all to plan; while big projects engaging large teams over multiple years will take much longer to plan.
These graphs can be useful when working with traditional project managers who have a tendency to plan, plan, plan since this is a domain they feel comfortable with even if the quality of their input data is questionable. We can point to the red line curve and ask “Where is the next best dollar spent on the project?” is it to do more planning given we have questions about so many things, or should we try to execute away some of this uncertainty and make progress towards the project end goal?
This will always be easier said than done. There is a reassurance and efficiency in knowing exactly where you are going before you set off on a trip. Proper planning creates that knowledge of how to get to the destination and avoid back tracking. However many of today’s projects are trips into unchartered territory for our organizations and no good maps exist to guide our way.
This is uncomfortable for some people; they don’t like the idea of not being able to plan out the exact route to our destination. But if it is truly new territory for us, rather than guessing where the lakes and mountains may be we need to start exploring and update the map as we go. This view of the world is the idea behind the saying “The map is not the territory”. Plans and maps are good, but if we find things in reality that are not on our map, then reality trumps the map.
It is not just the project manager who feels uncomfortable in the face of this uncertainty, other project stakeholders do too. It is important that PM’s explain why it is better to start moving forward to give us new information through execution, rather than trying to plan away uncertainty without any new insights.
Rally recently gave a presentation at their RallyOn conference entitled “Thinking like a Scientist” that nicely described the planning balance. In the presentation they said:
Disciplined Explorers = Embrace Complexity + Experiment + Empathize
To me this nicely sums up the issue and acknowledges the need to also empathize with people about the way they will likely feel about embracing ambiguity. To be successful we need a good balance between reasonable planning based on the quality of our input data and likelihood of changes. We also have to accept that some things will emerge and change as we go, and that experimentation through build/feedback cycles is the way that we learn and gather better planning data.
Disciplined Explorers understand the risks of both not enough planning and too much planning. They can generate consensus for moving ahead without all the data and know how to design experiments to gather information while keeping the stakeholders together and informed.
(Note: This article was first published at ProjectManagement.com here)