Thought Leaders

The Seven Deadly Sins Of Project Management: Massaging The Plan

project team

Project management is a key vehicle for organisations to turn strategy into action. However, despite the increasing investment in project management capability, many projects still fail to meet their objectives.

In this second article in a series we explore how massaging the plan can create constant misalignment, one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, initially coined by Jeffrey Pinto in his paper ‘Lies, damned lies, and project plans’: Recurring human errors that can ruin the project planning process’.

At Skarbek, we often parachute into situations where a client’s key projects are in crisis and the blame game has begun.

Has there been malpractice in project management, or is it environmental factors that have driven failure – lack of resources, commitment, engagement, or sponsorship?

To those project managers who readily point out that their projects were well run, but these external factors conspired against success, Pinto’s seven deadly sins provide some insights that can make the profession question whether they really got it right from the beginning.

How often in your organisation are the detailed plans worked up by project teams challenged by senior leaders? And what is the specialist understanding they bring that allows them to shorten the timeline on request?

Is it their experience, greater technical knowledge than the project team, or simply that they’ve already made a commitment that depends on the project to deliver by a certain date? Pinto suggests three implications of this behaviour:

  1. The senior leader knows more about the project than the project manager
  2. The senior leader does not trust the plan
  3. The project manager has deliberately hidden slack in the plan

When we see this happening at our clients, it is of course disheartening on a professional level.

The client has paid for our expertise in training project teams in integrated planning, which draws on skilled cross-functional facilitation to ensure all expertise is incorporated, as well as multiple estimation techniques to accurately bracket the timeline.

So when project managers acquiesce to pressure and  make arbitrary adjustment to the forecast launch date, that high quality work is discarded and the organisation starts to deal with corrupted information, a much more serious issue than just the damage to our professional pride.

If this happens routinely, we then sometimes see project teams starting to add their own time buffers as a defence against the inevitable request to take shortcuts, and the behaviour of the senior leaders is also reinforced as they feel vindicated in their belief that buffers are being regularly hidden in the plans presented to them.

With objective timeplanning thus undermined from both sides, then the whole portfolio of project plans will become untrustworthy, and the value delivery for that organisation becomes far less predictable.

In our experience, that will tend to signal a shift to most projects being seen as ‘late’, even if delivered in line with the original pre-massaged timeline, which logically is the most likely outcome if the initial planning was done well!

A factor to reflect on is the type of conversation that is taking place and the human dynamics involved.

In our integrated approach to planning, derived from a synthesis of military mission command estimate process, as well as classic brainstorming and design thinking, we can often witness human dynamics at play:

  • The senior leader who demands a shorter regulatory timeline, without proper examination of the feasibility and does not hear constraints
  • The subject matter expert who is fixed in past experience and their technical expertise to defend an entrenched opinion about timings, without engaging in creative problem solving
  • Junior team members who may be seeing something others have not, are ignored
  • Extrovert personalities failing to enquire from the more introverted members for their valuable inputs

Planning is another one of those activities where, to derive the best plan, one must embrace and encourage conversations with high variability.

The language associated with this is curious, open, probabilistic and options focused – How do we know? How can we be sure? How can we increase the probability of success? What are the alternatives? How do you see it differently? How might this go wrong?

One helpful tip is that if 9 people on a team are in in agreement about a plan or solution and there is no variability in views, it is the duty of the 10th to disagree and for all the team to find reasons to challenge the plan.

The biggest consequence though of the mentioned failing approaches is that no-one has the same understanding of what is meant by a launch date.

Is it the forecast launch date, the best-case launch date, a stretch challenge set, or just the date by which to get transferred off the project team before the inevitable chickens come home to roost!

If the dominant shift in the portfolio is indeed towards being ‘late’ versus the financial plan, how can this ongoing value loss be stemmed? At Skarbek, we suggest three strategies to employ to mitigate this tendency:

  1. Where possible involve senior stakeholders, or at a minimum your sponsor, in your integrated planning sessions. It builds trust in the process and it’s much harder to top-down truncate a plan you helped create!
  2. Develop a common language for describing launch dates – never let the date stand by itself – always attach an internally defined descriptor e.g. We advocate using “Aspirational launch date” to describe a target without a robust plan at the moment to deliver it. Latest ‘Estimate’ to describe the current forecasted launch date. Other terms which can be used include: ‘forecast’, ‘stretch’, ‘earliest’, ‘challenge’, ‘intended’, ‘confirmed’, ‘last feasible’ etc.
  3. Collect real data that can make for corrections in your portfolio forecasts such as average time between stage gates for groups of project types, so systematic massaging of project plans can be quantified and aimed off for.

In future articles, we will example the remaining deadly project sins before drawing together our insights as a whole of what may be dooming your projects from the offset and the overall strategies that we have found can be employed to avoid this fate.

John Hall is operations director at Skarbek Associates.

John Hall
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