Thought Leaders

Don’t Rush Into Planning

The problem is that moving from a strategy into a detailed task plan can be an enormous leap. It’s all too tempting to dive straight in and run that all important Project Definition Workshop (PDW).

There is pressure to get the project going. But resist you should. The risks of diving in too soon are shown in thousands of troubled projects throughout history. Stakeholder disagreement, timescale uncertainty, cost unknowns, task confusion: all can arise as a result of moving to planning without adequate scoping.

It is preferable to put a toe in the water than to dive straight in. In other words, run a scoping workshop first and try to draw the big picture of what is going to be delivered. A strategy tends to be more qualified than quantified, so it is necessary to gain agreement to how it could translate into a quantifiable project.

Whether your project be an IT rollout of a new operating system, a new business process, the installation of an electricity sub-station, or even a Sewage treatment plant installation, you will find it very useful to get agreement to the big picture and the full project scope before diving into the PDW.

A More Assured Planning Pathway

Big-picture mapping is a great way to kick off a project anyway. It’s a terrific ice-breaker, but it’s also full of revelations, and many of these may not be what you wanted to hear. This is because it will be the first time key stakeholders will have realised the full scope of what may be achieved.

They may or may not agree. Better now than later, though. You don’t want to hear of disagreements half way through project execution. You do, though, want to hear of any problems up-front and big-picture mapping is a great opportunity to clear the air and decide what can be achieved and what cannot.

The process is simple and interactive[i]. High-level activities and outcomes lead to end-goals. Goals are agreed first, then pathways to them are agreed through activities and outcomes.

Sticky notes applied to a large whiteboard are linked by arrows until stakeholders feel they have a good high-level outline of the scope that the project comprises. There is usually much mind-changing, as pathways, activities and outcomes are regularly changed to satisfy objections and consensus.

If the picture cannot be created to full agreement then it shows that the project is not perhaps as clear as may have previously been thought and that the strategy itself may be faulty.

The resulting map is the input to your project Definition Workshop. Entering a PDW after big-picture scoping has been done and agreed ensures that a more confident outcome can be achieved, prior to detailed planning.

A PDW should not consume time trying to clarify goals, objectives and scope. These should be largely givens. The prime outcome of a PDW is a high-level Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). This is the document for creating detailed task planning.

Figure 1 shows the complete pathway from Strategy to Detailed Plan. The big difference from the norm, is, of course, the step after Strategy.

So, don’t rush into planning. Take time to clarify the strategy. There will be many pressures to get going, but a firmer stake in the ground will be placed through a more considered process.

John Bartlett is an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Project Management. His deep project and programme management experience and many papers and books are testimony to his thought leadership in PM. His books, including Right First and Every Time and Managing Risk for Programmes and Projects, can be purchased via the Project Manager Today bookstore.

[1] A detailed description is in my book Managing Programmes of Business Change.

John Bartlett
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