After being on the road these last two weeks presenting at project planning conferences and talking to hundreds of project practitioners, I have come to a simple realization...we have accepted and implemented some poor planning habits in our industry that prevent us from producing accurate and achievable plans, faster.
If the overarching objective of project planning is to establish a model (in a timely manner) that best reflects what we believe will be reality, then why are CPM tools not enabling us to achieve this goal? Because the use of these tools has taught us some bad planning habits – habits that we need to kick if we want to build better plans in a more efficient manner.
Bad Planning Habits to Kick
1. Start-From-Scratch Planning
What do you see when you fire up a CPM tool and start to build a new project? Not much right? You typically see a blank workbook into which you are expected to start building out your masterpiece schedule. With today's technology isn’t it a bit strange that this is the case? Wouldn’t we be better off somehow telling the computer a little bit about the context of what we are building and let the computer guide us through the building of our plan?
One of the resounding sentiments I picked up from my trip was the fact that organizations are getting more and more concerned with losing project expertise through conditions like workforce retirement. Why then aren’t we helping organizations capture this expertise, store it, and then re-use it to the benefit of the upcoming generation of planners? This would overcome concerns like brain-drain as well as leapfrog us away from start-from-scratch-planning each time we build a new project schedule.
Let’s move away from “start-from-scratch planning” and head towards “knowledge-driven planning.”
2. Work-Driven Planning
Planning theory talks about defining a top-down project scope, breaking that down into deliverables, and then figuring out what is needed to achieve those deliverables. The work needed to achieve deliverables is modeled in CPM using activities and logic links. Together they allow us to calculate when the project will be completed. CPM tools do a great job of allowing us to build these very detailed work-driven models, but they don’t do a good job of telling me whether the work is an effective means of delivering these products, assets, or deliverables. Perhaps there is a better, cheaper, faster way of executing work to get me to the same end goal? Wouldn’t it make more sense to first start with properly defining what it is we are being asked to build (scope) and then figuring out how to build it (work)?
By enforcing separation of scope and work during the planning process, we, as planners, can then subsequently better report to the subscribers of project information (the executives and stakeholders) what matters most to them – what it is we are producing (e.g., deliverable, product, or asset).
Missing scope or detail in a plan is as bad as getting the included estimates wrong. If we adopt more of a “deliverable-based planning” approach, then the tools should also be able to tell us where we have missed scope and associated work in our plan too.
Let’s stop focusing on “work-driven planning” and embrace “deliverable-based planning.” It helps explain the ‘what’ and not just the ‘how’ as well as ensures our model truly reflects and includes all of the scope we are being asked to build.
3. WAG Planning
WAG planning pertains to the art, rather than science, of estimating the future. While each project is a unique endeavor, if you break down the scope of a project into enough detail, then projects absolutely do start to share commonalities. Shouldn’t we be looking back at previous or analogous projects and benchmarking not just our durations and costs, but also things like sequence of work and common issues or risks that have arisen? Why do we re-plan from scratch without at least considering historical benchmarks or standards?
It’s acceptable to template or re-use. Re-invention isn’t smart; leveraging what we’ve already learned to better innovate is smart, and that needs to be applied to project planning. Templating needs to be much more than traditional copy-paste of sub-nets though. Templating needs to be smarter than that, accounting for differences such as geographical location or quantity variances. If I am building a 20-story building, don’t give me a template based on a 100-story building without suggesting some degree of factoring where relevant.
Bye-bye “WAG planning” – hello “calibrated planning.”
4. Planning in Silos
Lead planners carry a tremendous amount of responsibility on a project. They are expected to both plan and schedule. In other words, they are expected to be CPM experts, understanding how to properly use the vast array of CPM building blocks (scheduling), but they are also expected to be domain experts - knowing how long, how much, and in what order project execution should be carried out. That’s a lot to ask. Not only that but if a plan isn’t reflective of team-member buy-in up front, then your CPM schedule is going to be shot down the first time it comes under any scrutiny by project stakeholders.
When facilitating risk workshops, we are essentially trying to establish team member buy-in (or lack thereof). It is better to have consensus that an element in a plan is wrong than to have wildly differing opinions and partial buy-in amongst the team. Consensus is a very powerful measure of realism. Rather than having a plan be represented by a single individual (the lead planner), we should better enable those who carry the first-hand knowledge on actually building the project give their input and then make their input stick! Incorporate that input into the plan.
This fresh approach also removes the planning bias of “the loudest, most senior person wins” during interactive planning sessions and schedule reviews. If the suggested durations and sequence of work is backed by a high degree of expert consensus, then even a “loudest person in the room” will find it hard to push back.
“Silo'd planning” move aside, here comes “consensus-based planning.”
Planning Habits for Tomorrow
As I’ve said many times before, I passionately believe in the concept of a CPM schedule. But like any object of value, it needs both sound form and sound function. CPM needs to provide realistic schedule forecasts, and it needs to do so in a manner that is understandable to those that are subscribing to the information that it provides.
The process of building CPM schedules needs to be more efficient and more reliable for it to really obtain the credibility I think it truly deserves. It needs to be easier for the builder of a plan to build more realistic schedules.
Let’s not keep making planning tools more complex – let’s make them more purposeful. Let’s not force planners to create a schedule from scratch every time. Let’s use our history, experience, and team to turn that vast amount of knowledge into a digital asset that can then be re-used. CPM has been around for 50 years... Let’s change our planning habits for the better and release the untapped value of this planning technique. If we do, the next 50 years will see far more projects executed based upon (and measured against) realistic, achievable, and sound plans.