“Do you know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” This quotation is often attributed to famous French mathematician and natural scientist Blaise Pascal, who lived back in the 17th century. And in actual fact, if we take a look at studies on project success rates, not much seems to have changed since then. So is it any good to make plans? Plans that often don’t work out in any case? Or should we just skip the whole planning thing?
Planning as part of “managing” is not, in and of itself, a value-adding activity. Creating PowerPoint presentations, filling out Excel worksheets or forms, spending hours in project meetings with no appreciable outcomes – these are all activities that, from an end-customer’s perspective, don’t add value to the product or service. From a lean management perspective, they’re positively wasteful! Project management only adds value if it generates good, profitable decisions. Because that’s when it adds value for the end-customer.
What are good decisions? They’re decisions that result in a successful project – which immediately raises the next question: What is a successful project? The usual, obvious answer is to define a successful project as one that meets the Magic Triangle targets for time, cost and scope (= deliverables) defined in the project specification. But while this answer isn’t wrong, it’s not entirely right, either. Regardless of Magic Triangle parameters, changes in circumstances, target definitions and stakeholder influences can all impact the perception of whether – or not – a project is ultimately successful. For a project planner, this really means that a project is successful if you meet the expectations of everybody concerned, and if they acknowledge the benefits of the project outcomes for themselves. This goes far beyond the project specification’s time, cost and scope targets.
A plan is one of the key components of what Edward Deming described as the basis of all management activity: the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, also known as the PDCA cycle or Deming cycle. The PDCA cycle is highly adaptable – both in terms of how frequently it is applied, and in terms of the management level at which it is applied (from field-level to upper echelons). According to the PDCA cycle, the planning stage (“Plan”) is followed by the implementation stage (“Do”). Implementation is then regularly checked against measurable variables (“Check”). Finally, whenever the actual project status deviates from the planned (i.e. target) project status, the plan itself must be adjusted (“Act”).
This cycle enables us to make good decisions, because we steadily continue to learn by observing and responding to deviations. A plan can only ever be a more or less accurate model of a future reality – but in practice, “actual” reality will almost inevitably deviate from the ideal “target” reality. Only by identifying those areas where the actuality has deviated from the planned targets are we able to succeed! This is why it is so important to regard a project plan as part of a methodical management process, rather than simply a “sales contract”, “outsourced job” or “what I promised the boss”.
A project plan is not something static, carved in stone. This mindset is most clearly reflected in agile project management methods such as Scrum, where the project specifications are reviewed at regular, short intervals to ensure that they’re still producing the intended benefits. If not, they’re adjusted to meet the new, evolved requirements and expectations.
But the same is also true of traditional project management. Here too, the project plan is not just a to-do list, to be drawn up once and then mindlessly processed without further thought. A project plan is a tool that is continuously adjusted in joint consultation between project team, project manager and project principal, each according to their (clearly defined) responsibilities, so that it always serves as a practical platform for managing expectations efficiently and making good decisions. Used like this, a plan makes sense – and culminates in a successful project.