Proper planning can help project managers avoid raging fires

What kind of Project Manager are you: The explorer or the firefighter?I have a riddle for you. If successful project managers spend 90 per cent of his time communicating and 40 per cent of his time planning, how does this add up?
The answer must be that planning and communicating are sometimes the same activity.
And here is one more bit of math for you. More than half of all projects do not succeed. That’s a fact, Jack. Project success is defined as delivering what the customer wanted, when they wanted it, for the amount they agreed to pay.
Almost every reason for failure is due to poor planning. Three reasons for this are: I don’t need to plan, I don’t have time to plan or I don’t know how to plan. (That last one will actually be voiced as either excuse No. 1 or excuse No. 2.
Let’s look at these three separately.
• The project manager does not need to plan. Find another profession. Project management is all about planning. And if you are not willing to devote 40 per cent of your time to the art of planning, then go find another gig where planning is not the core activity. Perhaps firefighting.
• The project manager does not have time to plan. If the PM does not have time to plan, it may be that the organization is not encouraging the planning phase. For example, when a project starts up, the organization will immediately demand to know when the project will deliver. That is the wrong question to ask. The question to be asking the PM is “when will your detailed project plan be ready for review?”
Ironically, some organizations that are always in a hurry to deliver as soon as possible may neglect to emphasize the importance of the planning process. They do not clearly see that a project plan is a key deliverable of every project. If you find yourself in the situation where you are pressured for a delivery date within hours or days of being handed a project, you need to counter with a request that you be given adequate time to plan the project. You need that time to get yourself into a position so you can make promises you can keep.
So, do you know how to plan?
Effective project managers are great facilitators, leaders, estimators and negotiators. And this brings me back to my opening equation. Ninety per cent of effective project planning is done with others.
First, get a good description of the end-state of your project. Your sponsor knows what is wanted. Your project will declare victory when your sponsor signs off that you have completed your mission.
Here is a three-step process for defining the deliverables:
1. Ask your sponsor to describe what the end state of the project looks like. Get details.
2. Go back and write it down. Be sure to think hard and capture everything that is not in scope.
3. Book a meeting to discuss it. This is a chance for feedback, and to pick up more clues on what the sponsor really, really wants.
The key to planning is to be a consummate explorer who seeks the information he or she needs by working with others to develop a plan. Your project plan should be created in a workshop environment, with your team present and with you facilitating. Begin by revealing the goals set by your sponsor.
The next step in great planning is to focus on the quality of the plan. Good plans are full of assumptions. The art of planning is that we don’t know everything, but we communicate what we had to assume. Those assumptions are very valuable, because every single assumption that does not turn out to be true will become a project risk. For example, in a recent project of mine, the project plan assumed that a technical person would be available to work on the project by a certain date. Therefore the risk became that schedule slippage would occur if the resource were not available. The risk management plan then began to immediately communicate this risk, so those in control could help secure the resource.
So the next time you stomp out a five-alarm project fire, as your boots are cooling ask yourself if that towering inferno could have been planned out of the project in the first place.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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