Monday, February 9, 2015

Planning in a changing environment - Does it exist a perfect plan, and does it matter?

Which characteristics should a perfect project management plan possess?

Find an answer to the above question could be a very interesting intellectual exercise, but not very useful. Rather, I think that this activity would be a complete waste of time, not worth the effort. Do you know why?
Because I think it does not exist such a thing as a perfect plan, and even if it did, I won't be very much interested in it, because I would rather prefer a useful plan.
Project plans should be useful, not perfect.
So I believe that a far better question should be 

Which characteristics should a useful project management plan possess?

I mean, there are features that we all consider mandatory in a project management plan, but those features are there to make the plan useful, and not to make it perfect.

Precision vs. truthfulness

I think that we can all agree upon the fact that a plan should be precise to be useful. 
If a plan is too generic, it won't serve its primary purposes, which are planning, monitoring and controlling a project.
Unfortunately, the more a plan is precise, the less is probable; That is why a plan is a simplification of the reality and a single snapshot of many possible interactions within a changing environment.

So we come to a paradox. The more a plan is precise, the more it becomes useful, and the more it becomes false. The objective of a project manager is to find a good balance between accuracy and truth. Paraphrasing the famous statistician George E. P. Box about statistical models, we could say that all plans are false, but many are useful.

Figure 1.

Take a look at Figure 1.
The x-axis represents the plan’s accuracy (moving from the left to the right accuracy increases) and the y-axis the plan’s truthfulness (moving from the bottom to the top plausibility increases).
Each one of the 4 quadrants is divided into 3 zones. The green zones represent areas where the balance of accuracy and plausibility allows the creation of useful plans. The orange regions represent areas where the balance of precision and plausibility leads to the creation of not very useful plans or plans that are not worth the efforts. The red zones represent areas with impossible or absurd balances of accuracy and plausibility.
Let’s dive a little more in the graph and analyze in depth each one of the quadrants.

  • (a) Plausibility is preferred to precision. This quadrant is the domain of agile project management methodologies. We have to be ready to integrate our plans frequently with new details and project insights. 
  • (b) A plan that is accurate and plausible, this is the project management’s holy grail. 
  • (c) Precision is preferred to plausibility. This quadrant is the domain of classic project management methodologies. We have to be ready to change our plans frequently. 
  • (d) This is a very strange quadrant. Why should anyone create a project plan that is not accurate and, at the same time, not plausible? Let’s look with suspicion even the green zone.

A way to finding a reliable balance between precision and truthfulness is not to exceed a reasonable time horizon, beyond which planning is no more a process, but it becomes a gamble. This horizon is different from project to project, depending on organizational process assets, enterprise environmental factors, industry, technologies involved...
Fortunately, a project manager has many tools in his/her pocket to build useful and sound plans, like rolling wave planning, division into phases, Agile methodologies and so on.

Plans vs. Planning

In any case, even if we succeed in crafting a project management plan with a good balance between accuracy and truthfulness, we cannot forget that this is just a temporary win. Projects, as we remarked before, are living entities that try to survive in a hostile and imperfect world.
Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian Army in the second part of the 19th century, known for his innovative methods, used to say that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

So we have to be prone to change our plans. Changes in project plans should never conflict with project charters or business cases. Nevertheless, in order to deliver great values as outcomes of our projects, we must be ready to change, to change quite often, and to change quick.
As a matter of fact, Helmuth von Moltke used also to say, probably as a compendium of the previous citation, that plans are nothing; planning is everything.
We need to shift our focus from the plan to the planning process. 
If it takes too long to adjust our planning documents, we cannot be as effective as we should. So it is not enough to plan accurately in a reasonable time horizon, we also need efficient planning processes running.


We definitively need plans for our projects, and we need to make them precise enough to be useful, but not so accurate to be remarkably unreal. We must be ready to go through well-suited change management's processes, whenever there is a need since planning is at least as important as plans themselves.

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