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Having no plan beats a bad plan

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We walk a careful line between control and interference. Let things run loose, without direction and schedule, cost and scope all suffer. Exert too much control and it stifles people, strangles creativity, and hurts schedule, cost and scope. It is also rotten for team longevity. Tim Geithner’s new book provides an excellent prompt for musing on the challenges of crafting a project plan that provides the right amount of control which doesn’t interfere. In the book, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary during the 2008 financial collapse has a chapter entitled “Plan Beats No Plan.”  I disagree. The right plan beats no plan but when the right plan isn’t available no plan wins.

A project plan is more than a list of activities. To quote Wanda Curlee and Robert L. Gordon from their book, Complexity Theory and Project Management, “Plans are the walls of life, the silos that keep us from understanding others.” When a leader decides to approach a problem by establishing a plan, they are making a communication design decision. It determines who can talk to whom and who will work on specific activities. Further, it defines which activities are the right ones necessary to meet the project’s objectives. 

When a plan gets concretized into a schedule, it is more than a time sequenced list of activities. To quote, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall, from his book, Beyond Culture, “Schedule determines what we see and don’t see. It is a way of compartmentalizing so we can concentrate on one thing at a time. But it also denies context, selects what we will and won’t see and how the pieces fit together. It is a system for setting priorities and deciding what is included or not.” A schedule, like a plan, is a communication design decision. It shapes what our solutions can look like and what our projects can deliver.

The instinct to create a plan and a schedule to address problems, particularly large ones, is understandable. After all, many of us arrived at project management through the successful execution of plans and schedules. But project leadership is different. When in a leadership position, creating a plan is not always the best way to approach a problem, particularly a large one. We may have arrived at our position through successful execution but that doesn’t mean we have the answer to ever problem, or even, that we can know how to arrive at the answer. On the other hand, project participants who are actively in the thick of things can find answers. They have the relationships to solve problems collaboratively, understand the consequences of living with the choices they make and are incentive to find a good solution. 

Of course, there are many times where we can develop, implement and execute the right plan. But it is important to know when those times are and what conditions must exist for a plan to be the right answer. As a guide, it depends on the uniqueness of the situation and the amount of predictability we can count on in the project environment. The bigger the problem, the less likely these conditions hold.

When faced with a big problem, don’t automatically create a project plan and schedule. Assess the situation and determine if a plan is the right answer. If it is not, as a leader, let people know that a solution is possible and keep them motivated to move forward. Communicate expectations and check in often. Foster a communication environment where project participants can exchange information and work towards a solution. This will give your project the best chance of delivering the right solution at the right time for the right cost.  What’s more, the solution may just surprise you. It could be the next great leap in innovation your organization has been looking for.  After all, big problems create opportunities for people to create big, new solutions –if our preconceived notion of the right “plan” doesn’t get in the way.

Mark Phillips is the author of Reinventing Communication: How to Design, Lead and Manage High Performing Projects published by Gower.

APM members can claim exclusive discounts on How to Design, Lead and Manage High Performing Projects and a range of Gower titles, click here for more details.


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  1. Liam Grady
    Liam Grady 26 June 2014, 07:35 PM

    "Those who live to plan, fail to live" - Liam Grady, 2014.This article demonstrates that sucessful leadership is being more than just an organic scheduling tool, its about creating and cajoling and leading. Its the best part of my career.  

  2. Mark Phillips
    Mark Phillips 15 June 2014, 03:21 PM

    Pat,As stated in the article "Of course, there are many times where we can develop, implement and execute the right plan. But it is important to know when those times are and what conditions must exist for a plan to be the right answer." Further, I am aware of lessons from the potential pitfalls in Agile.However, for a plan to add value, it has to be better than what already exists. It requires a conception of scope and a picture of how the project participants should work together to achieve the scope that improves on the existing scope definition and structure. This bar for action is particularly high in cases where project participants, say financial service firms, insurance companies and consumers, have existing relationships and motivations to come to a solution, and already operate in a regulated/plan constrained environment. While tempting to equate 'taking action' with 'coming up with a plan,' every problem does not need a new plan. As leaders, we need to assess whether the situation does indeed require a new plan. Leadership is deeper than coming up with a new plan for every problem, it requires knowing when one is necessary.

  3. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 15 June 2014, 11:14 AM

    To fail to plan is to plan to fail.  Or to put it differently, the plan is nothing, planning is everything (Dwight D. Eisenhower).  Every plan is wrong the challenge is making the plan useful and using it sensibly.  No plan, no direction = chaos! (As many agile anarchists have found to their cost).