To Plan or Not to Plan (That is the question)

Posted by Dave Kemp on February 21, 2014

One of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning is that my job is always interesting. Shaping and delivering projects can be frustrating, challenging, and exhilarating in equal measure, with the mix often switching faster than the English weather. But one thing it isn’t is dull.

In large part, it’s because a project means an organisation is doing something new, or doing something old in a new and better way, or with new people, or trying to reach agreement on the best way forward in changing circumstances, one that everyone can buy into. It’s both stimulating and challenging to work out the best way forward (for a certain definition of “best”).

Different roles manage this changing landscape in different ways. Sales oriented people think of a funnel of opportunities, qualified leads, and assessments of what’s real and what’s fanciful. Project managers tend to speak about the cone of uncertainty, and manage this through RAIDregisters (Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Dependencies). Others simply refer to the fog of war. But whatever you call it, you need a way to manage things when you may not know everything (or indeed, very much) about a possible future.

We deal with this through various forms of planning, and, emergency responses aside, I want to pick up two ideas that appear, at face value, to be contradictory. To Plan, or not to Plan.

  • Lack of planning leads to failure. It’s critical that we plan what we are trying to do. We need to know, as best we can, what should happen, and when. Who should do it. Why it needs to be done, and what depends on it. Are there risks to getting things done? Have we made assumptions in the plan? All this will produce a plan, but it’s the thought process that matters – considering what could go wrong, what alternatives may exist and so on. To quote Eisenhower, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The need for planning, and the outcome of that process, is key
  • Reliance on the plan leads to failure. So, we’ve thought about things, and we have a plan. Unfortunately, as John Lennon pointed out, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. Stuff happens, in other words – reality intrudes, and the risks thought about are realised, the assumptions you made turn out to be incorrect. This is why the plan is useful, but not the key. The key is the planning processes, and all the thinking about the ifs and buts.

As ever in life, the result is in the middle. We need a plan – it tells us what we’re trying to achieve, and how, but we must accept it’s going to change as it meets reality. So:

  • Establish a baseline: Does your plan make it clear what you’re trying to achieve, when, and how?
  • Manage the unhappy path: Do you understand where and how your plan might break?
  • Develop contingency: Do you know what you’re going to do (or might do) if it does break?
  • Scan reality: Step back from the plan and see what’s going on. Talk to people. Can you pre-empt reality?
  • Manage expectations: Do your stakeholders appreciate that reality wins every time (no matter how much they may wish otherwise)? Are they helping with the planning process?
  • Change objectives: Has reality changed so much that the original objective is untenable?

Things rarely go precisely to plan. But good management recognises that planning is a process, not a deliverable, and plans accordingly. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.

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Dave Kemp

Dave’s workforce management expertise is rivalled only by the variety of organisations that he has supported through business transformation initiatives, including many in public services. Since joining Leadent, he has worked with the Environment Agency, University College London and Transport for London, as well as many utilities to help them transform their ways of working.