After being on the road a lot through 2019 presenting at planning conferences and talking to hundreds of industry practitioners, I have come to a simple realization: we have accepted and implemented some poor planning habits in our industry that prevent us from producing accurate and achievable plans, faster.
If the overarching objective of project planning is to establish a model (in a timely manner) that best reflects what we believe will be a reality, then why are Critical Path Method (CPM) tools not enabling us to achieve this goal? Because the use of these tools has taught us some bad planning habits – habits we need to kick if we want to build better plans more efficiently next year.
Bad Planning Habits To Kick
1. Start-From-Scratch Planning
What do you see when you fire up a CPM tool and start to build a new project? Not much right? Just a blank workbook in which you are expected to start building out your masterpiece schedule. With the technology available today, isn’t it a bit strange that this is so? Wouldn’t we be better off telling the computer a bit about the context of what we are building and letting it guide us through the process of building our plan?
One of the recurring themes I hear at events and workshops is that organizations are growing increasingly concerned with losing project expertise through conditions such as workforce retirement. Why, then, aren’t we helping them capture and store this expertise, and reuse it to the benefit of the upcoming generation of planners? This would help address concerns over “brain-drain” and also assist us in transitioning away from start-from-scratch-planning towards “knowledge-driven planning” when we undertake to build a new project schedule.
2. Work-Driven Planning
Planning theory talks about defining a top-down project scope, breaking it down into deliverables and then determining what is needed to achieve those deliverables. The required work is modeled in CPM using activities and logic links. Together, they allow us to calculate when the project will be completed.
CPM tools do a great job of allowing us to build these very detailed work-driven models, but they don’t do a good job of telling me whether the work is an effective means of delivering these products, assets or deliverables. Perhaps there is a better, cheaper, faster way of executing work to get me to the same end goal. Wouldn’t it make more sense to first start with properly defining what it is we are being asked to build (scope) and then figuring out how to build it (work)? Let’s examine:
- By enforcing separation of scope and work during the planning process, we, as planners, can then better report to the subscribers of project information (executives and stakeholders) what matters most to them – what we are producing (e.g., the deliverable, product or asset).
- Missing scope or detail in a plan is as bad as getting the included estimates wrong. If we adopt more of a “deliverable-based planning” approach, then the tools should also be able to tell us where we have missed scope and associated work in our plan, too.
- Let’s stop focusing on “work-driven planning” and embrace “deliverable-based planning.” It helps explain the “what” and not just the “how,” and ensures our model truly reflects and includes all of the scope we are being asked to build.
3. WAG Planning
WAG planning pertains to the art, rather than science, of estimating the future. While each project is a unique endeavor, if you break down project scopes into enough detail, they absolutely do start to share commonalities. Shouldn’t we be looking back at previous or analogous projects and benchmarking, not just our durations and costs, but also things such as the sequence of work and common issues or risks that have arisen? Why do we re-plan from scratch without at least considering historical benchmarks or standards?
In reality, it is acceptable to template or reuse. Reinvention isn’t smart; leveraging what we’ve already learned to better innovate is smart, and project planners need to embrace this. However, templating needs to be much more than a traditional copy/paste of subnets. It should be smarter, accounting for differences such as geographical location or quantity variances. If I am building a 20-story building, don’t give me a template based on a 100-story building without suggesting some degree of factoring where relevant.
Bye-bye “WAG planning” – hello “calibrated planning.”
4. Planning in Silos
Lead planners carry a tremendous amount of responsibility on a project. They are expected to both plan and schedule. In other words, they need to be CPM experts, understanding how to properly use the vast array of CPM building blocks (scheduling), but also be domain experts – knowing how long, how much and in what order project execution should be carried out. That’s a lot to ask. Not only that, but if a plan doesn’t reflect team member buy-in upfront, then the CPM schedule is going to be shot down the first time it comes under scrutiny by project stakeholders.
When facilitating risk workshops, we are essentially trying to establish team member buy-in (or lack thereof). It is better to have consensus that an element in a plan is off-base than to have wildly differing opinions and only partial buy-in amongst the team. Consensus is a very powerful measure of realism. Rather than having a plan be represented by a single individual (the lead planner), we should better enable those who carry firsthand knowledge on actually building the project to provide their input, and then make it stick. Incorporate that input into the plan.
This fresh approach also removes the planning bias of “the loudest, most senior person wins” during interactive planning sessions and schedule reviews. If the suggested durations and sequence of work is backed by a high degree of expert consensus, then even a “loudest person in the room” will find it difficult to push back.
“Siloed planning” move aside – here comes “consensus-based planning.”
Planning Habits for Tomorrow
As I’ve said many times before, I passionately believe in the concept of a CPM schedule. But like any object of value, it needs both sound form and function. CPM should provide realistic schedule forecasts, and in a manner that is easy to understand for those who are subscribing to the information it provides.
The process of building CPM schedules needs to be more efficient and reliable to really garner the credibility it deserves. It has to be easier for the planner to build more realistic schedules.
Instead of making planning tools more complex, let’s make them more purposeful, and not force planners to create a schedule from scratch every time. Let’s use our history, experience and team to turn that vast amount of knowledge into a digital asset that can then be reused.
CPM has been around for 50 years… We need to change our poor planning habits and release the untapped value of this more enlightened planning technique. If we do, the next 50 years will see far more projects executed based upon (and measured against) realistic, achievable and sound plans.