As we begin the New Year and begin to execute our business strategies, there will be many new programs, projects and initiatives. Whether we use a formal method like PMI, DMAIC or one of many others, or an informal method is a matter of preference. But it would be hard to overemphasize the importance of planning.
In the PMBOK guide to project management, more than 50% of the high level processes are in the planning phase. That's more than are in the other 4 phases combined. The Construction Industry Institute found that projects that spend at least 20% of design work hours in planning have better design and construction performance.
There is a typical argument against spending the time to do rigorous planning up front. It goes something like this: “Things are going to change anyway, so my plan will become obsolete as soon as I make it. It’s more efficient to be agile as I go along.”
The problem with this type of thinking is that it misses some of the real benefits of planning. This may stem from the belief that the plan itself is the sole deliverable of the planning phase. True, a well-designed project plan does provide direction, accountability, schedule realism and other benefits. A plan increases a project's agility in the same way that your skeleton increases your body’s agility. It provides structure against which changes can be measured and reacted to.
But planning provides something more important than the project plan itself. It provides a dedicated time to really think through more than just work that has to be done. This involves an ASSESSMENT of the project risks, an ANTICIPATION of the project’s potential problems, and an ACKNOWLEDGEMENT of those risks by key stakeholders and sponsors.
ASSESSMENT of project risks should include financial, schedule, scope, stakeholder, and people risks. This can include things like ways the project could go over budget, capacity and capability gaps of project personnel, the potential for scope creep, stakeholder opposition, external business changes, etc. You can think of it as a brainstorming for pessimists– what are all the things that can go wrong? Usually risks are ranked on a severity/likelihood scale. A determination will be made about which risks are so likely, or so severe, that they must be addressed.
The risk assessment allows the project manager and stakeholders to ANTICIPATE the likely problems that will impact the project, and put a contingency plan in place. This plan can be triggered in the event one of the risks occurs. Sometimes called a “potential problem analysis”, this will allow an understanding up front of not just what can go wrong, but what we will do about it if it does. Reducing the “unexpectedness” of a potential risk can minimize the impact of the event if it occurs. It can also build confidence and stakeholder support for the project.
The risk assessment also allows stakeholders to ACKNOWLEDGE the risks associated with the project. Stakeholders understand which risks to accept and which to mitigate with a project or contingency plan. It should also include a clear trigger for communicating and approving the contingencies if they do arise. This sets the right expectations for project communication and escalation, and shares responsibility for project success upwards.
President Eisenhower once said “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” If you spend the time to plan– personally or corporately- you won’t be rewarded by everything going according to plan. You will be rewarded by the clarity of a detailed focus on risk, and the ability to envision multiple paths through those risks to the desired outcomes.