Planning for project professionals

13 May

A lot of voices, many from the agile community, have questioned the need for planning. Their rationale is simple: since change is inevitable in whatever it is you are doing, it is wasteful and counter-productive to plan. This is especially true, they argue, for planning beyond the horizon of a sprint or timebox. After all, the primary value of short-duration iterations is the potential to make course corrections and accommodate changes that present themselves along a project’s arc of activity.

Realistically, time and expense connected with planning are inherent in many projects and cannot, and in some cases, must not be reduced or eliminated. Think civil engineering or construction. In projects where regulatory authorities are involved, payment is connected to progress, and failure can mean loss of life.

Outside of that class of project, make no mistake, abandoning planning has a very strong appeal. It can free up precious resource time that can be spent elsewhere. It removes what most will agree can be one of the more detailed and drudgery-laden front-end tasks, along with eliminating ongoing pain associated with plan maintenance. Saves time. Reduces pain. Sounds great.

But there is a foundational problem with this notion.

No project survives without planning. Regardless of the size and scope of the initiative, some level of planning must exist to move forward. As a general rule, the more complicated the initiative, the greater the need for planning, if for no other reason than to coordinate cross-functional subject matter experts or services critical for success. Without planning, opportunities for chaos, confusion and conflict increase dramatically.

Even projects using an agile delivery model require planning. Within an agile team proper (we’ll use Scrum as a reference model), short-term plans reached by agreement with the members inside a timebox are a necessity if work is to be synchronized. Retrospectives and feature backlog grooming are where planning happens once things are underway.

But the planning necessary to, at the very least, assemble people and suppliers and, in most cases, arrange financing has to happen before any “Agile-specific” work occurs. Take any of this planning away, and the project will ultimately fail or not start at all.

This is not to say that conducting planning itself will ensure a project’s success, far from it.

We’ve all seen it: bad planning can derail a project just as easily as no plan. The difference here is this: a lack of planning will guarantee failure. Full stop.

So if planning is the minimum requirement for success, how can we do it better, faster and with less pain and expense? The challenge is to apply just enough of the right planning at the right places to ensure that progress toward the goal, be it deliverable or outcome, can be consistently made and measured.

The operative word here is “right”. The “right” planning means tools and methods appropriate to support progress. These tools and methods cover a spectrum starting from a list on a cocktail napkin to “next steps” in a meeting to multi-thousand line time, expense and people models. Each has its place, benefits and limitations. As a project professional, you help drive the decision of who, what, where and how planning will be performed. 


Posted by Cris Casey.

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