Five Pitfalls of Project Planning

In the 1980s action-adventure television series The A-Team, one of Colonel Hannibal Smith’s most enduring and oft-repeated lines was “I love it when a plan comes together!” This project management insight for the ages, while seeming simple, is deeply insightful. Hannibal’s series career was a never ending string of serious challenges. Hannibal, however, always had a plan. Hannibal’s plans always worked. However, as another series character, reporter Amy Allen put it, “Hannibal’s plans never work right. They just work.”

Hannibal’s series writer may have been a student of former U. S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s management philosophy. A former general and the visionary of the United States’ system of interstate highways, Eisenhower is quoted decades before Hannibal as having said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

Seemingly paradoxical, isn’t it?

So it is that neither Hannibal, nor President Eisenhower, nor I, nor (most likely) you can completely predict and dictate how the future unfolds in every project. It simply turns out that planning can be our reconnaissance on the future. Generals never voluntarily go into battle without reconnaissance, but they realize that the original intelligence gathered may change before the mission. Then, when that future unfolds however it does ultimately unfold, their understanding of it and how to deal with it is much improved. With basic understanding of our path, we won’t forget where we are at any given point. And when we’re up, as the saying goes, somewhat above our knees in alligators, we are less likely to forget that we originally went there to “drain the swamp.”

Here’s a catch. When the plan hasn’t been articulated, it’s difficult to identify gaps and even to agree on exactly what vague notions really mean, to establish a shared notion and understanding among team members, and to even remember major parts of it. Thus, a written plan, while “useless,” is nonetheless golden.

On the road to a project plan, let’s count (only just a few of) the pitfalls that can sidetrack us.

Note that some of these are closely related to others, yet different in important ways.

Pitfall #1 – Writer’s Block.

Seeing the dreaded blank page staring back at us with its lonely blinking cursor is one of life’s little nightmares, even for veteran planners. Getting started is just plain difficult. For starters, here are two antidotes.

Antidote 1: Templates

Templates can go a long way toward getting started and making sure you include all the “right stuff.” However, the wrong template for another industry with bunches of irrelevant sections is only a further roadblock. In some cases, there may be no suitable template.

So, find related templates and generic templates – as many as you can. Get ideas from each, selecting those things that apply to your particular situation. For example, a security-heavy plan probably has numerous parts and sections that don’t apply to your project. Tailor the sections of your plan to relevant matters. A risk section is always relevant, however, as is a timeline, etc. Government regulatory requirements might also apply to a local raffle, but under another descriptive title.

Antidote 2: Start Simple

Failure to get even the initial version done in a timely fashion is failure defined. You’ll find that after producing a simple version, however immature and incomplete, each successive version will become easier and easier and even more fun to generate as your understanding of the material you’re dealing with matures.

Pitfall #2 – Not Using a “Rolling Wave” Approach.

There may be sections of your plan that you just can’t quite envision yet. In rolling wave planning, you lay out the skeleton of a complete plan, and defer some details that are further “down the road” because you don’t yet have enough knowledge to address them well. Also, life may well change before those plans are needed anyway. Rolling wave planning is your friend when it comes to getting that plan out in a timely fashion. However, this reduction in detail in the beginning does not mean you shouldn’t give at least some consideration to potential risks, for example, in the later time frames.

This approach is great for getting past the writer’s block you might have encountered in planning things less well understood.

Antidote: Identify, but only temporarily postpone, plan sections for which there simply isn’t yet enough knowledge available. Include the sections, but only at a high level of detail. Don’t delay completion of the initial version until the necessary information is available. Naturally, however, you must be sure to flesh them out sufficiently in advance of the time for their implementation.

Pitfall #3 – Planning as the End Game.

In some unfortunate instances (and certain cultures) planning may go on so long that the ultimate implementation timeframe is too short. This pitfall is closely related to the proverbial “paralysis by analysis.” Your project plan should find the “sweet spot” where you include just enough detail in the initial version.

Pitfall #4 – Failure to Get Peer Review.

The simple fact is that one person, no matter how knowledgeable and talented, can rarely take a complete and objective view on every topic in the plan. While some reviewers may suggest seemingly trivial things that reflect a lack of understanding and may take some effort to answer, their questions at the very least may reflect a misunderstanding that should be cleared up. You’ll likely miss important ambiguities and gaps without peer review. It’s time well spent.

Pitfall #5 – Failure to Document and Remember Assumptions.

Assumptions that don’t prove true are often the decisive project downfalls. Even more insidious are those assumptions you didn’t even realize you made! In order to truly find those assumptions, you and your team will have to scour the entire document completely with an eye specifically toward finding them. Here again, peer review is invaluable.

You’re Gonna Love it When that Plan Comes Together.

May we all be as “lucky” as Hannibal. But J.R. Ewing of Dallas TV series fame phrased it yet another way, saying “I find that the more I know, the luckier I am.” Project planning reconnaissance is your friend. Don’t give it short shrift!