Too Much, Too Soon

Filed under:Planning Pitfalls — posted by Meri on August 20, 2006 @ 1:56 am

With this first entry, I thought I’d start with a really common planning pitfall that often happens right at the beginning of a project. This problem can appear in many guises, but it basically involves planning too much too soon.

The most common example I’ve seen is when planners make the mistake of putting their sketchy plans into a non-sketchy format. When you’ve scribbled your schedule for the next 3 years for that million dollar project onto the back of a cigarette packet, airsick bag or even the traditional trusty used envelope, it’s perfectly obvious that it’s a rough guess at what will happen. Transfer that exact plan into MS Project or some other scheduling tool and it suddenly looks both professional and authoritative. It stops being a rough indication of the plan and becomes The Plan.

The next problem is that because The Plan LOOKS professional, you feel obliged to flesh it out. That milestone that said “magically make money” becomes a detailed account of the steps towards revenue. The reality, though, is you probably DON’T NEED those detailed steps at this point. Your format is what is forcing that detail, not your need to know what to do. And because, in the back of your mind, you know that you’re never REALLY going to follow that part of the plan, you just make it up as you’re going along, safe in the knowledge that you’ll ignore it later. You don’t estimate properly, work out the resourcing impacts or any of those other important things, because you figure you’ll do the real planning later.

So, you might ask, what’s the harm in that? If I know I won’t actually use it, why is it a problem that it isn’t accurate?

There are a few things here:

  1. You’re spending time on something basically worthless. Aren’t you busy enough?
  2. Although you may know that you aren’t going to follow the plan, others won’t. Someone is going to see those tentative back-of-the-envelope dates and hold you to them. They may even decide all the funding and resourcing for your project based on that initial plan. Do you really want that?
  3. The semblance of authority is dangerous. If you do a seriously detailed plan for a big, long project right at the beginning, people will assume that you really can predict what will need to be done in the first two weeks of September 3 years from now. However much the feeling of being the local Oracle may be nice, replanning later can be both tedious and difficult.

So what’s the alternative? Make it abundantly clear what authority or accuracy level needs to be assigned to the current plan. This doesn’t mean presenting unprofessional-looking plans to your project board — rather just calling a spade a spade. Leave out the detail for the phases of the project that you haven’t honestly done proper detailed planning for. Pick an alternative format if that will help — sometimes a simple high-level schedule in a flowchart or table can be a better representation than a full Gantt chart.

Net: Being honest at the beginning can save you an awful lot of backpedalling later on.

image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace