While researching my previous blog on why the ‘why’ of a project often goes missing, it was notable that another ‘P word’, planning, kept coming up. So, one step before the loss of the ‘why’ – and more fundamental than losing sight of an objective – what is the role of poor planning as a factor in project failure?
Weaknesses in planning may have been a greater issue in years gone by. According to APM’s Introduction to Project Planning, published in 2008 to promote the planning function, “The meaning of project planning is misunderstood by many in the planning community… The value of effective planning is only occasionally recognised.”
However, as Paul Kidston, former director of project controls at Costain and lead author of APM’s 2015 book Planning, Scheduling, Monitoring and Control, points out, things have moved on. In that book, the definition of planning is very clear indeed: “the process of identifying the methods, resources and actions necessary to accomplish the project’s objectives”. As is the definition of ‘purpose’, which involves “understand[ing] the need, problem or opportunity that the project will address and the benefits that it will deliver”.
Is optimism, rather than poor planning, driving failure?
Of course, the difference between what is written down and what happens in the real world can be marked. But is a problem of poor planning really a widespread factor in project failure? Says Kidston: “In my recent experience of major projects, I don’t think that plans are necessarily poor.” However, it may appear so “because they do tend to be optimistic”.
Optimism need not be a bad thing. “Without it,” says Kidston, “nothing ever gets built, [but] what is lacking is sufficient recognition of the risk inherent in most projects, and crucially in allowances for unexpected delay and cost.”
This underlines the importance to successful planning of the adoption of tools such as risk management and ensuring that plans are front and centre to a project throughout, rather than being put aside and not revisited once a project is underway.
If there is a tendency towards optimism in project planning, how does it come about? David Belshaw, project controls manager at Rolls-Royce plc, cites the ‘Planning Fallacy’ – the tendency to overstate the forecasted benefits of a project and to understate the timescales and costs.
The cost issue suggests parties beyond the planner. Could client expectation – and over-expectation – be a factor? Belshaw points out that planners have agency.
“I personally think that our internal biases cause the biggest contribution to over-optimistic and badly planned projects. At the end of the day, we do not have to accept every expectation of a client.”
Yet Kidston suggests cost pressure can be intense. “[In the construction industry especially] the whole drive to price work to achieve ‘value for money’ leads to behaviours that do not help the delivery of projects to time and budget.”
It all comes back to the planner
How can we get around this ‘failure factor’? Both Kidston and Belshaw cite the importance of transparency and being firm in managing expectations. But ultimately, improvements to mitigate over-optimism in the planning process come down to planners themselves.
Belshaw cites the importance of seeing the role of planner not as a discrete one, and suggests planning goes beyond the planner. “Planning itself is a ‘team sport’, involving multiple stakeholders. Although we do have professional planners, we need teams coming together to plan to ensure success.”
And as the team embraces planning, so should planning embrace the team. Kidston believes that planners “should be interested in all aspects of the project, such that they are effectively deputies for the project manager. They should be interested not just in sequence and time, but whether the project is spending wisely/making money, how safety is managed on the project, what the environmental impacts are and so on. Thus planners become ‘project controllers’ in as wide a sense as possible.”
For the project profession, it seems the art of planning is a work in progress – and there is a growing understanding that it involves a lot more than sequence and time, but every aspect of a project.
As understanding evolves, so should the role of planning, its need for agility and its contribution to improving the profession’s record of success. As Belshaw puts it: “We live in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world where the need for planning is greater than ever.”