'A project plan is still just a plan'

There are many reasons why a project gets delayed, cancelled or neglected. It is upon the project manager to make peace with the fact that changes are inevitable, and therefore need to be accommodated in the project, says Stephen Foden .

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
— Dwight D Eisenhower

Failing to plan is planning to fail. This is an age-old maxim of experience. And it is little wonder that project managers spend a lot of time evaluating what needs to be done, how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost. This is of course the project plan. And a project manager is paid to deliver the required outcome by the planned time and within the planned budget. But this is also where things start to go awry.

A majority of projects fail to deliver the expected results. This is particularly true within the technology sector — especially IT. A report recently contended that 18 per cent of IT projects are cancelled or the end product is not used; and some 53 per cent are completed late, are over budget or are missing some functional requirements or a combination of the three. Battles have all the characteristics of a project, namely:

They are unique, of a limited duration with a defined start (D-day) and end date (as per the mission parameters).

Limited objectives and/or scope (called the mission).

A time-frame in which to achieve the scope, and a cost that has to be minimal in terms of resources and material.

At the end of a planning process, management and staff see the project plan as an immutable set of facts with all of its commitments or promises set  in stone. There is no flexibility and no room to compromise or manoeuvre. Perfection is the order of the day.

But the project plan is still just a plan — a collection of estimates (best guesses) of activity, time frames and cost at a point in time.

It is only when the time comes for project managers to implement their project plan, often delayed by approval processes and staff changes, that reality strikes and uncertainties begin to affect the project outcome:

Some requirements may be unclear, ill-defined or left out entirely

The project plan may have underestimated the time and cost

Staff may have different ideas about what’s expected of them

Occasionally, when suppliers/staff just don’t deliver on their promises

Illness, equipment failure, natural disasters and other uncertainties can also affect the project.

Some would say that a project should not start until everything is known, all activities fully defined, and all resources identified and available. But this is just not practical. Few projects would ever get off the ground in this respect.

As a result, trade-offs and imperfect decisions have to be made. Think of a tender situation where suppliers are expected to put together a high-level design in a short period of time but without full information. Granted there is opportunity to do a subsequent detailed design but the time and cost pressures for progress necessitates trade-offs. What would happen if it takes 15 years to complete a city’s desalination plant? The city would be uninhabitable as it will have run out of water!

It is the job of the project manager to accommodate confusion, change and surprise — this ‘fog of war’ (courtesy: Von Clausewitz) — within the project and still deliver the expected outcome on the expected day to the required quality. But how do project managers do it?

First, recognise that the plan is just that — a plan. It’s a snapshot of intentions at a point in time based on imperfect information and trade-off decisions. Separate the good from ordinary project managers.  Good project managers constantly re-evaluate the situation, moulding and shaping the plan as the project develops so that the desired outcome is achieved. They are action- oriented and do something now. They use the plan to focus their attention on the key things that will influence the project’s outcome. As Alan Lakein says, “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”

Second, project managers need to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility built into the project to address and react to unexpected events — the ‘fog’ within the project. The military do this with the concept of ‘depth’ or ‘reserve’, where 20–30 per cent of available resources are held back to react as the situation develops. In the commercial world, it is done by holding money as contingency. But we often don’t hold enough, or we allow the organisation to see the reserve as free money that can be reallocated elsewhere. Here’s another rational approach:

Undistributed budget funds: For identified work that is yet to be allocated to work packages

Management reserve funds: Allocated to address risks associated with work packages that we know about.

Contingency funds: Allocated to address the unknowns (the things we don’t know that we don’t know about). Sufficient reserve funding allows the project manager the flexibility to react to change and uncertainties as they arise.

(The author is a faculty member of Chifley Business School, Australia.)

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