Is a project plan worth the paper it's written on?

By Trevor Birch

Almost everyone involved in the management of projects and programmes recognises the truth of the old adage “fail to plan, plan to fail” and knows that good planning lies at the heart of effective project management.

However, a recent survey of PA’s senior consultants shows that there is still a widespread lack of robust planning across many projects and a lack of understanding of what good planning looks like.

In response, we have identified five key actions that underpin effective plans. The first of these is to use the planning process to find out what you don’t know and what the organisation can realistically achieve rather than an excessive focus on convenient end dates which may not be realistic or logical. That, in turn, should then lead to the next step – ensuring project leaders are comfortable with flexibility. This should mean, if project managers are to be held to fixed end dates, they will have the ability to manage the other constraints such as cost, quality and scope.

The next key action in effective project planning is to educate project sponsors and teams. Senior management often want very detailed plans that offer certainty but good planning does not focus on a series of tasks but on how the plan has been put together and the story it tells about delivery. This means it is vital that senior managers understand that projects can be delivered without rigidly sticking to a plan.

The fourth step is to get the right skills and experience in place. Qualifications and training are important but are not a replacement for the good judgement and skill that comes from experience. The final step in good planning is to ensure that the plans are clear and engaging. They need to be consistently communicated not by simply sharing large Microsoft Project schedules or GANTT charts but by telling the story of what needs to be done.

All these actions need to be supported with clear buy-in from all stakeholders. Then, as long as a robust process has been followed, sponsors and project managers can be relaxed about the level of detail that is written down and embrace more flexible styles.

So while our experience suggests that too many organisations have yet to recognise the critical role of project planning, there are also some very clear steps they can take to ensure their projects realise the expected benefits.

About the authors

Trevor Birch Travel and logistics expert

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