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What’s the Point? Planning with Intent

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Big brands and inventors have long been aware of the danger of creating products that customers simply don’t understand. Think EZ Squirt Ketchup, BIC disposable underwear or even the Segway. When it comes to projects, problems with planning often stem from the same root cause; those carrying out the project have been unable to understand what is intended. In a number of cases, this is simply because none of the people initiating the project have articulated the intent behind it or, if they have, they simply haven’t shared it.

Part of the problem may be what Edward De Bono, the father of Lateral Thinking, called the two stages of thinking. The first stage in a project, which he also calls the perception stage, is the process by which we frame and understand what we are trying to do and it’s often assumed, or simply skipped over, in the context of projects because we rush to the second stage, processing. In shorthand, 'we know what this thing (whatever it may be) is — it’s a project and we know how to deliver projects.’

Gary Klein, whose classic 1998 book The Sources of Power explored how people make decisions, identified seven considerations that are useful for communicating intent:

  1. The purpose of the task (the higher-level goals)
  2. The objective of the task (an image of the desired outcome)
  3. The broad sequence of steps in the plan
  4. The rational for the plan (essentially, explaining the sequence)
  5. The key decisions to be made (why, how and when it would be appropriate to diverge from the plan)
  6. Antigoals (unwanted outcomes)
  7. Constraints and other considerations

Using this idea of intent as a basis for shared meaning is extraordinarily useful in any complex environment because it gives those people delivering the project the authority and the boundaries for independent thought. The whole point of managing projects effectively and efficiently is that you know where you are trying to get to, but you allow those delivering it a level of discretion in terms of the best way to get there.

It may feel counterintuitive but, in many ways, the more intangible and uncertain the project outcomes, the simpler the intent statement. Is every project doomed to groan under the weight of hundreds of pages of initiation documents, which no one could ever possibly read and assimilate?

This isn’t an invitation to throw the detailed planning processes out of the window. Planning has the benefit of allowing you to simulate different routes to your outcome, to adapt your aspiration to the resources you have available and your level of risk appetite, and to double-check your project is affordable and deliverable (from the point of view of technical capability).

Your intent statement follows the planning process and is the shorthand to which everyone can return to sense-check what they are doing and in the run up to major decisions.

Using intent as a medium for shared meaning is as much a social as technical process; part of your engagement and stakeholder strategy and to that end, you should use the full gamut of techniques available to you when putting together a plan, for example:

Co-creation: Tom Inns, the author of Ecosystems Mapping, has a wonderful example of the value of co-creation in planning. Working with his stakeholders to map and represent the environment, the stakeholders, and the dynamics of the processes ensures everyone understands the complex system within which they operate. The resulting one-page stakeholder map uses colour, icons and structure to provide a touchstone to which everyone can return and enables you to map out intended changes together.

Metaphor/analogy: we use metaphors every day without necessarily realising it and in What Makes Us Intelligent, David Krakauer makes the point that “You have to think a lot to make things simple, that’s the magic.” More is not necessarily better in terms of technical language, jargon or simply number of words. Shared metaphors and analogies are a communications shortcut to which we all have access that helps us make sense of the world around us and the work that we are doing.

Analogical reasoning is very common in projects of all kinds. People involved in the start of a new project will consciously be searching for other past projects that they can reference, but there are risks in this kind of thinking as it tends to emphasise the similarities between projects and can ignore the (substantial) differences. However, as a quick way of helping stakeholders make sense of what you are doing, it‘s second to none.

Storytelling: we often use cautionary tales, such as stories from iconic business failures, as a shorthand way of encouraging colleagues to learn the lessons from the past. But storytelling is also a very powerful medium for conveying intent.

In my second post, I will pick up this theme of planning with intent and introduce you to some techniques that you can use to help you road-test and sense-check plans that you are writing or plans that you have been provided by others to check their road worthiness.


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