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Planners! Do we need them?

Planners! Do we need them?

It is said that those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

The above might be a bit corny, but when I go into the weekend and say I'm going to the pub, I rarely succeed. That is due to a lack of up-front planning, no buy-in from influential members of the team (no comment) and a small number of external influences.

Imagine trying to navigate through a major multi-million pound project, usually with significant LDs, with multiple circles of influence, and hundreds or thousands of tasks. You cannot hope to get the execution right without a plan... right?

Author: Ian Hall, Driver Project Services Operations Director

Well, you would have thought so, yet it is amazing to note how many projects fail to invest properly up-front, with the appropriate resources required to develop a quality plan. Ending up on the back foot as a result, needing to take extraordinary measures to compensate, we have seen projects get into difficulties with catastrophic consequences.

In my experience, there is a very strong correlation between the quality of planning carried out in the early stages of a job, and the quality of the outcome at the end of it. Perhaps this is because the existence of a plan helps to ensure that more of the right activities are carried out, at the right time, and surprises are avoided, or perhaps it is actually because the people who recognise the value of the plan are good project managers. Whichever it is, it doesn’t seem to matter how compelling the argument is to prepare up-front, companies still embark on big jobs unprepared. Organisations still set out on complex projects without a plan, which should have both integrity and quality, and be 100% owned by the project team.

Let’s assume for a moment that leadership is there to invest in the correct resource, and the correct level of input into planning. The next difficulty in attaining a quality plan is of course finding quality planners. Many PMs have experienced the following: 

  1. Plans created by people who understand how to operate the software, but have low engagement and communication skill
  2. Plans created purely to give clients a progress update or manage a contract rather than inform / drive the progress of the job (a regular statement made by project members who shun buy in)
  3. Plans created in isolation, by the planner, with no involvement from the Project team.
  4. Plans created by people who have an alternative role, and who don't necessarily have the time, and /or skills, to deliver what is required (muddling through)
  5. Plans with massive optimism-bias, designed to persuade people that the impossible can be achieved

It is little surprise that very few PMs recognise the need for planning, or even want planners. Many planners fail to employ some of the basic rules. I have listed some of these here: 

  1. The plan must cover the full scope.
    Omissions will cause scope-creep, rises in costs, surprises and delays, all due to the lack of preparation. 
  2. The plan must be reliable and robust.
    It should include open ends, logic, and number of constraints; be fully resourced, peaks accounted for, manning attainable, and number of sub-critical paths etc. 
  3. The plan and updates must rely on sound progress measurement methodology
  4. The plan must be clear.
    The team can understand it; mandatory codes are populated; views and reports can be followed; there are the correct number of tasks for the job; it is not too detailed, and neither too high level. 
  5. The plan must be developed with the team, by the team, and for the team.
    This is less about the planner, and more about whether there is planning buy-in from the PM. Without the plan being driven from the top down, it doesn’t matter how good or effective the planner is, they can only go so far. 
  6. The plan must be baselined.
    If you don’t publish a baseline how do you know whether you are on track? How do you know if outside influences had an impact on you?

Another factor is emerging within project management: the plan is now forming the basis of any claim. Whether it is used to defend, claim or accuse, it is now becoming the backbone of any argument. When I worked on the Kvaerner Oil & Gas fabrication yard at Port Clarence for 20 years, I worked with some very talented people. I remember being asked by one such person, while he was pointing at the mass of lever arch files with historical planning baselines and reports, "do we really need to produce so much information?" The answer to that question is a bit like asking, "do we need insurance?" We go through life rarely using insurance. At Port Clarence we rarely had a dispute because most of the jobs sailed away complete. However, in life, I have found that on the occasions when we do need insurance, we are usually very grateful that we have paid for it.

If a company ever gets into a dispute, the side that has the better records, the better quality baselines, and the better historical reporting, usually finds they are in the better position to argue their case.



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