Planning is crucial. It is crucial for organizations, communities, families, and individuals. I am an advocate of detailed planning of the kind that will model down to the dependencies of each step. I like knowing where my stress points are going to be and where I will go astray if a dependency doesn’t materialize. I have planned all of my projects and I consider planning a key success factor. Nevertheless, I have never had a single project go entirely according to plan.
The fact that not a single plan completed without change is not to be confused with failure. Projects fail for a variety of reasons despite the best of plans. Neither should one associate plan revisions with poor initial planning. The point is that without a plan, the project is wandering without a roadmap. The plan provides structure to the endeavor as well as an understanding of the overall architecture of the process. Plans go awry almost universally because we cannot control or even anticipate all of the possibilities caused by human beings and random circumstance. We can merely assess probabilities and draw conclusions that are likely to guide us through most of the events.
The challenge, then, is learning to adapt as you go. Adaptation is a survival skill. I have written about this topic in the past (see Learn to Play the Doglegs), but will elaborate here on three key elements. These are recognition, detachment, and adaptation.
The best thing about having a plan is that it will tell you when you are driving into the weeds. Recognition that the project is off track is vital to success. Small deviations probably will not have a profound effect on a project, but when a major milestone is missed or a key stress point stalls – when the critical path turns red – it is time to re-examine the plan.
The plan, though, is not the only means of recognizing when a project is headed for trouble. Listening to people is just as important because one may be receiving indications that alignment is poor or that needs are not being met well before trouble shows up on the instrumentation. Some signs to look for are:
- Decisions continue to be re-visited
- Certain tangents recur from meeting to meeting
- Meetings are taking longer than they should
- Participants or stakeholders exhibit confusion
Leaders need to be passionate about their projects, but objective about their project plans. For me, I take a great deal of pride in my “brand spanking new” project plans where all the pieces come together just in time to meet a deadline. It is not unlike the feeling of solving a complex acrostic puzzle. Nevertheless, if I do not abandon my emotional attachment to it immediately I will be in trouble because the plan is already flawed. It cannot help but be. When the project begins to deviate – which it will – I need to be prepared to jettison some parts, add new ones, or reconfigure others. By the end of the project, the plan may resemble a tangle of worms more than my initial pristine creation, but we will have made it to the finish line together. The secret is in letting go of the details.
Reconfiguring a plan is where the rubber meets the road. This requires flexibility on the part of everyone involved, but most of all on leadership. Adaptation is a form of course correction and requires embracing change. Not everyone on the project may be affected, but some may be affected profoundly. The key inputs are:
- Objectives: keep the project objectives clearly in mind. What does success look like?
- Priorities: re-examine the priorities. Is this really needed? Is this really needed right now?
- Dependencies: interrogate the dependencies. Must all of these conditions be met in order to proceed? Can this be retrofitted later without detriment to integrity?
- Roles: challenge roles and responsibilities. Are roles still clear? Have they changed? Should they change?
In most cases, projects have the luxury of making these adaptations over a period of days, perhaps even weeks. This is certainly the case on large construction projects and IT projects that proceed using a so-called waterfall methodology. But what about smaller projects or projects utilizing the agile project approach? Indeed, these are more challenging because the adaptations need to be almost instantaneous.
In agile projects, adaptation is part of the intrinsic culture of the process. Objectives, priorities, dependencies and roles are in flux practically every day as part of the substance of the daily scrum meetings. Good scrum meetings resemble the stretch of the spandex leotard on a dancer, reconfiguring to every change in the shape of the underlying form.
Smaller projects that are not “agile” can have similar stretch. To be successful, that stretch comes from even greater detachment from the details of a plan coupled with a clear comprehension of objectives, priorities, dependencies, and roles. An example will illustrate.
I was working with a client some years ago to develop a roadmap for their company analytics. The effort culminated in a one-day retreat, the result of which would be a prioritized set of initiatives. To accomplish all of this in a day, we developed an execution plan scripting a series of exercises that would lead to the goal. At the retreat, the morning exercises stayed on track and the participants returned from lunch ready to tackle the rest of the work. Within an hour, it was clear that the plan was in trouble. There were hidden agendas that had not been exposed in earlier parts of the process. To put the process back on track, we had to abandon one exercise altogether and blend another into a later exercise, allowing more time to realign the participants. Because we had never shared the execution plan with them, they arrived safely at their goal without ever knowing of the course correction.
We could not have achieved that stretch without the structure of the underlying plan. Irrespective of the fact that it did not proceed perfectly, it was a good plan because the rationale for each component was clear and because we had thought about what each component should reasonably require in terms of time and resources to execute. Not all parts were interchangeable, but enough were to allow for adaptation when the need arose.
I have woven an analogy into this article that references a concept outside the topic at hand – in this case the dance leotard – as itself another layer of analogy. This meta-analogy operates at two levels. At the first, the dancer’s stretch (the flexibility of the muscle) is analogous to the adaptability of the plan. At the second, the project reshapes like the spandex leotard as the underlying plan transforms. The analogy serves as a reminder that flexibility and the ability to adapt do not derive from just the plan of the day, no matter how good. Rather, they come from the larger picture that consists of all of the contents in our rucksack of life. The satisfaction is not in the perfect plan, but in the perfect stretch.
Does your organization have the knack for adaptation? What tactics to you employ to keep plans flexible?