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Planning, can we do without it?

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NHS Digital at Trevelyan Square in Leeds was the wonderfully central venue for this sell out event which saw a remarkable turnout. Many thanks to the NHS Digital team for hosting the event on 24th January 2018 and providing support before and after it.

The speaker for the evening was Kevin Parry, Programme Director in the NHS Digital Corporate Portfolio Office and committee member of the APM Yorkshire & North Lincolnshire Branch. The objective of the presentation was to provoke a discussion around the “pros and cons” of planning; taking the contrarian view first and then challenging the reasons not to plan, ending with some thoughts on the future of planning and the role of the project professional.

Kevin asked his audience, “Why do we bother planning?” It’s hard, uncertain, brings little reward for the large amount of time that it takes and the project never goes as you though it would! After all time planning is time not delivering and culturally, especially in the NHS, there is a bias towards delivery as what really matters.

Kevin asked his audience, “So what is planning and how does it differ from scheduling?” He went on to explain that scheduling is a sequencing of events, a technique dating back to the pyramids, whereas planning includes many other factors such as: the use of resources, costs and benefits, evolving since the 1940’s to reflect the speed, complexity and dynamic nature of modern projects.

Keven presented six major reasons why we shouldn’t plan. These included an unpredictable future, usually unclear project scope at the outset, insufficient resources being available, using a ‘to do’ list instead, that the team sees itself as working in an agile way and that estimating is hard work!

However he then went on to consider if there are some reasons why we should take a different view, starting with the psychology findings that, as humans we are good at short term, simple plans and we can usually handle these well in our heads, but that this become too difficult on a more complex project, with longer timescales or many dependant variables to consider. Furthermore the APM research findings and that of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority in Government over hundreds of megaprojects, as well as Oxford University’s BT Centre for Major Programme Management have clearly identified the top three project success factors as including adequate planning for the scale and complexity of the project.

Kevin compared these critical success factors to a “Jenga” game, take away a central support and the whole edifice collapses.

Kevin explained that if you do have a plan you are in a position to predict what might go wrong, and to understand how far events have deviated from the estimate. Under the pressures of project delivery, he went on to say, things don’t just go wrong sequentially, but exponentially.

Having a plan gives the project manager the chance to stop this “domino effect” and quickly see the impact of this change or potential course of action, using scenario planning. He explained that if your project scope isn’t clear then stop and clarify it with the Sponsor, Senior Responsible Owner or Senior User. He told his audience that scope drives everything else and provides essential clarity around constraints, objectives, dependencies and target outcome.

He gave practical advice on how to deal with all six of the reasons that planning might seem a pointless or even unnecessary task, taking each in turn and exploring the possible ways that apparent barriers can be overcome.

In terms of what the future holds, Kevin introduced the view that robots may replace project managers as we know the role today, but that a robot can be a computer application using artificial intelligence and with access to huge volumes of data. He described the shift to global working where teams pass tasks across time zones to provide 24/7 software development as an example. He described the shift towards modelling the solution in 3D and in virtual worlds rather than planning using Gantt charts, our profession must be actively involved in building the future.

There were questions and comments from the audience on the best way to share lessons learned and it was broadly agreed that verbally in a safe space was the most effective way to do this, as we need to share both good and bad experience without repercussions. Kevin was asked how he would approach short-term detailed planning horizons, he advised to plan in reverse from the end date using major milestones and back to known constraints and objectives, then build in the detail and contingency in phases.

The final question was how we might influence the culture from ‘just deliver’ to planning then delivery? Kevin suggested he would tackle this by ensuring the detailed planning was in the background and the senior stakeholders are presented with our world but with a filter on, focussing on the progress and management of risks and not the technicalities, but always to show them when delivery will happen!

The presentation can also be viewed on the APM Slideshare page.

Emma Wright


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