When you don’t have a plan, do you have a project?


Or maybe you have what many people call the ‘happy plan’

It has been a long-held view among most of the PM community that if you have a project, it is a good thing to have a plan, and most experienced project managers would agree with that.

However, when you look at the evidence around a decent sample of real projects, to answer the question as to whether a good plan exists, the results might surprise a lot of people.

So, first of all, let’s give some examples of what the opposite of a good plan is.

We use a term called the ‘happy plan’.  This is something that is usually developed more to fulfil a requirement (perhaps of a customer) rather than represent the output of a thorough planning process.  For example, if the target of the customer is to deliver by Xmas, lo and behold it shows the project finishing nicely just before Xmas.

Often, there will be little ownership of the plan, by those who are required to deliver its contents or commitment by the same people to the targets that are stated within the plan.  They may not even have been consulted when it was put together.  So, when you have or see a happy plan, in our words, you don’t really have a plan at all. All you have is a piece of paper with very limited value.

So what should a plan really provide?

So many happy plans contain a statement of, if nothing goes wrong, and every tiny detail (in the plan) works as expected, this is assumed to be the totality of what we will have to do, and all experienced project people know that projects are just never like this. There is another school of thought, which goes along the lines of if you have a Gantt chart, you have a plan. Don’t get me wrong, Gantt charts can be useful, but on their own, they rarely represent a plan.

A plan should be the output of a very well-thought-out project.  That plan, and most importantly what it contains, should address what we know about the project, and how we are going to address the major questions that we have in relation to the project.

So what does a good plan look like?

A good plan, is not one that tries to convey complete certainly in all outcomes of the project, as this can rarely be guaranteed by anyone.

Despite however much customers, business leaders and others want to see or hear this, telling them so at the beginning is only going to put off conflict until a later stage, and it may also waste a valuable opportunity to get their attention and input at the stage you really need it, up-front in the earliest stages in your projects. For example, a good plan should

  • be open and honest, about the most significant challenges that the project will face.  It will also show how you plan to deal with those and at what stage of the project you are going to do so.
  • Include contingencies, for example, finance, that the project team can draw upon, should some of the major uncertainties become real issues on the project, in other words, if major project risks actually happen.
  • Be shared with and developed with the full involvement of the project team, and any other key partners or suppliers who will have a major contribution to make towards the project.
  • Be understood by those same people, and enjoy a level of commitment towards its targets by those who are responsible for meeting them.

The above are just examples of what represents a good plan; there can be many other indicators of ‘good’ or ‘happy’. One thing for sure is, if all we have looks and feels more like a happy plan, or even just a Gantt chart, I’m really not sure we have a project that I would expect good results from, or at least good results within a reasonably predictable time frame.

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