Project Parenthood: Every Plan Is Wrong – Geof Lory

Geof Lory

Geof Lory

I’m currently managing a sizable renovation to a private facility and am working with the Board of Directors to establish the scope and budget for the project. We have gone through several versions, taking items out of scope and putting them back in, as we gradually narrowed in on what can be done with the allotted budget. You don’t know what you can do until you do enough research to understand what is possible and for how much. This iterative process is a staple of the early design and planning phase of any project. Incremental discovery can be frustrating, but is a necessary part of any project.
We are now at the point where structural drawings are complete and a preliminary budget has been established (with a contingency). So, now the Board wants to see the plan. As I have been working with the architects and builder during the design phase, we have created lots of plans in the form of drawings, but somehow I didn’t think this was what they were looking for. So I asked for some clarity on what exactly they wanted to see in a plan. No surprise, I got as many different answers as there were people in the room. But they all agreed they wanted a plan. Sound familiar?
Conceptually, what they wanted was some assurance of what was going to be done (scope), when it would be done (schedule) and how much it was going to cost to do it (budget). They wanted to see “the plan.” What varied was what level of detail was necessary to assure them that they knew what they were going to get and that we had done our homework. How much detail do you put in a plan?
Of course, the consultant’s answer is, “Just enough, but no more.” But first, I’d like to ask my favorite question-“Why?”

Why Create a Plan?
I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see a project follow a plan, so what is the value in creating one? Wouldn’t the time be better spent just doing the work? When thinking about dichotomies like this, my mind tends to wander to opposite ends of the spectrum hoping to find some answers in the absurdity of the extremes.
I started thinking about Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) in Summer Vacation. If you recall, he had their entire vacation planned out to the mile and minute, but hardly executed any of it successfully. He was behind and off schedule before leaving the house. It was a thorough plan that never saw the light of day because reality hit before they even pulled out of the driveway. It makes for great comedy, but it is not that far from reality for many projects, which is not funny at all.

When my daughter, Erika, was younger, she enjoyed helping me with Saturday chores. Friday night we would sit down and make a list of the things we planned to do the following morning. It was a simple plan, no more than a task list; however, it served our purpose-to guide us through the process of planning. Inviting the discussion necessary to create the plan (physical evidence that the planning process actually occurred) brought us to a common understanding of how much work we had, so she could decide how involved she wanted to be. It also addressed whether any of the work was dependent on weather, trips to the store, or anything else. From this planning process Erika could schedule her Saturday and we had a plan.

Then, Saturday morning, and it seems like all bets are off. The alarm doesn’t go off or the weather is bad and we are immediately “behind schedule.” Even if we do start on time, the first job always takes longer than expected. The mower won’t start, the bolt threads strip, or someone cuts themselves and we spend an hour bandaging a wound (which of course reduces productivity for the rest of the day). The plan is out the window, or at least needs to be revisited. Like Clark Griswold, we mistook the plan for reality.

A Change of Perspective
An author friend of mine, David Schmaltz, refers to this as mistaking probability for predictability. He does not present this as a cop-out for planning, but rather a call to a higher consciousness around the process of planning and our view of the outcomes of the process. David contends that “good project managers use their plans knowing full well they are wrong, and wrong in ways they cannot explain.” The more we admit the inadequacies of our planning, estimating, and predicting skills and the inherent uncertainty of the future (not to mention Murphy’s Laws), the more we can see the plan as a series of probabilities rather than predictions. Acknowledging this will encourage better overall planning behaviors.

Therefore, we would benefit most from changing our perspective on the plan. Too often we look at a plan as a roadmap of what will happen and set our expectations accordingly, rigidly anticipating that the plan will be executed and variances managed away. In reality, a plan is more like a statement of intentions (SOI) that acknowledges we are incapable of predicting the future. We know the plan is wrong, just in ways we cannot explain-otherwise, we would.

When you know that the plan is wrong, but not how it is wrong, it ups the ante for stakeholder communication, inter-team coordination, producing empirical evidence of work completed, risk management, and every project management discipline. Most of all, it means you are constantly questioning the plan and re-planning. These are all good project management basics, but all easily forgotten or ignored when we are comfortable with the belief that the plan is right.

A couple of months back my daughters were moving into their respective apartments at college. Each had their room dimensions, laid out a plan for where everything was to go and packed accordingly. We shared the illusion that it would be a one-trip, 3- to 4-hour event, after which we would all have time for Dad to take everyone out for dinner. It was a good and believable plan, but the only thing that came off as expected was that Dad bought dinner, and even that was much later in the evening than expected. The rest of the plan was scrapped before half of the van contents were in the elevator. So much for the plan.

Two months later, after numerous trips to the department store, the hardware store, and back home, their rooms are still being arranged and rearranged. But they are each happy with their new homes and everything eventually worked out just fine. In the process they learned something about planning and plans, which was my real goal. I hope they learn that planning is not an event, it’s a discipline. They should never stop planning, even if they realize that the plan doesn’t matter. That way, future plans will be more probable, even if they are not definitively predictive.
“I love it when a plan comes together” … even when it was not what was on the plan.