Don't Plan Projects, Design Them

Project planning is needed, don't get me wrong. However, thinking a well-planned project will ensure success is not good thinking. In fact, with all the planning we do, why do most companies still have a failure rate of 70% for large complex projects? 

I see three problems with project planning.

  • Planning is really "scheduling".
  • Scheduling dates is more fiction than truth.
  • Planning doesn't include the "how-to" and lessons learned.


Scheduling is What We Do

The purpose of a project plan is to lead the way to good execution. A good execution should lead to successful results. So, project planning should be all about laying the foundation for the ultimate success.

Why is the conversation around project planning usually focused on dates and people assignments? 

It may be because the business owner is more concerned about when you will be done and how much it will cost. They don't seem to be too concerned if have the right knowledge and process in place to ensure success. This seems to be common for any type of project, such as new product development or new systems integration.

Hence, we schedule.

Scheduling is only part of the project planning process. The other part is making sure the content of the process is spot on. You can have a project on time and on budget and yet still fail to meet business objectives.

Estimating Dates is Fiction

We all know it's really hard to estimate dates for a project. The reason is because there're many banana peels on the floor. We can do our best but issues will slip under our feet.

However, we can reduce that risk if our process includes great knowledge from previous success and lessons learned from past failures. For example, let's look at a task like "gather requirements from the marketing department". If that's the only content and we slap on dates and a team member, what guarantees that this task will be executed the right way? Nothing! The result of this one task can vary widely depending on a person's experience, skillset, ability to ask good questions, and so on. Give this one task to five different people and we'll get five different results.

Because of this variation, schedule dates will be at risk. Some work items may take longer than expected due to lack of information, miscommunication, and back and forth meetings.

Where’s the How-To?

Most project leads and managers are so busy with the scheduling part of project planning that they miss core process definitions, which is how we execute the work the right way. The problem with the task “gather requirements from the marketing department” is that there's just not enough information. For example, who should I get the requirements from (i.e., what role - manager, subject matter expert), how should I ask for the requirements, how do I know they're providing the right information, how do I ensure I keep everyone within scope, and how do I regurgitate so I don't misunderstand?

I call that the “how-to”; how to get that task done really, really well. With enough information, you can give this task to five different people and get results that are pretty close to each other, regardless of their experience.

Design Your Project

Designing a plan is different than scheduling a plan. Hold off on the scheduling part until you have a well-thought-out project design.

Design is about thinking through what's needed: the process, the structure (phases, order, and grouping), the knowledge that's needed, and other content. Think of it as your secret sauce or the tips and tricks on getting it done right. Imagine capturing the best knowledge from your project rock start, or the super duper subject matter expert, and having it available at the team’s fingertips while they’re executing.

Here are some tips to get you thinking about project design:

  • Look for past projects with good content you can use as a starting point. If past projects were well designed for content processes, then you may have great frameworks that may work for your own project. 
  • Find a subject matter expert to help you design your project. Also find a previous project lead that has executed a similar type of project. With these two individuals you should be able to capture ideas and lessons learned.
  • If you don't have past examples or people to help, you can still design a good project. You will just need to think through all of the steps needed for a successful execution.
  • As you draft out your task list, start thinking about structure such as phasing. Grouping of tasks in two phases will help partition a complex project. It will also create a sense of high-level milestones for stakeholders and executives. The structure should be simple and make good organizational sense for the team members. 
  • Always, always view the design from the team member's point of view. Is it easy to read. Is it well organized.
  • As you write out your task labels, use a short sentence structure and always start with a verb. This is important to help the assignee know quickly what needs to be done at a high-level. For example, if a task is labeled just "marketing requirements" and is assigned to me, I wouldn’t know if I had to get them, review them, publish them, or approve them.
  • The next part is critical. This is where you define the detail recipe for a task. Of course, some tasks are very simple and self explaining. These are low-risk tasks that are hard to misinterpret, such as “make and appointment for the marketing meeting”.
  • Focus on the high-risk tasks such as “obtain marketing requirements”. Think about all of different things that could go wrong or what a person may forget to do, and then describe the tips and tricks. The riskier it is for a task to fail (not get done right, or not get done on time), the more detail you should provide.
  • Expand your thinking to include new ideas along with lessons learned. Encourage collaboration with comments about who to ask for help on this task. Also include comments that encourage the assignee to use their own intuition and innovative thinking.
  • Consider a visual project management tool that focuses on project design in addition to scheduling.

Design LIKE an architect

As you're planning your project, think of yourself as an architect designing a new building. Focus on the end goal such as what determines if the project is successful. Don't get stuck on just the timing and the budget, but think about what success really means for the project's end customer. A good architect not only thinks about the timeline and funding, they also think about the building form and function, such as the exterior's emotional impact, the interior's friendliness, natural lighting, simplicity, tenant safety, and long-term maintainability. And of course, the architect thinks about construction processes, such as how the building process will come together between contractors, construction safety, and construction city codes. 

Design for the future

Most projects are repeatable types of projects, meaning that whatever you build this time, you or someone else will need to build something similar in the future. If you believe your project is not totally unique and will be done again in the future, then design the content to be generic enough for future like-projects. For example, instead of labeling a task, “set up a meeting with Corinna Harrison”, label it “set up a a meeting with the marketing director”.

Once your design is done, think of it as an ongoing improvement process. Your designed project will never be perfect, but you can definitely make improvements overtime.

Taking this approach could help improve the average project success rate of 30%. So, let’s shoot for 40%!

The more you understand about what really makes your project successful, the better of a designer you will be. And the more you understand what it takes to get each task completed well, the more truthful your schedule dates will become. Then, project design and project scheduling comes together as real project planning.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Paul DandurandComment