Manage the Odds

Peter DruckerThere are two quotes from Peter  Drucker that are well worth remembering when planning.

“The planner must be right in his timing of 10 or 20 separate developments, all of which must arrive at the same point at the same moment lest the whole plan collapse. The planner stakes all on an unbroken series of 20 rolls of seven.” — The New Society

This first quote warns us that each additional date in the schedule exponentially increases the risk of variations in the schedule. This is not a call to reduce the number of deadlines.

“Unless we build expectations into the planning decision in such a way that we can find out early whether they are actually fulfilled or not – including a fair understanding of what are significant deviations both in time and in scale – we cannot plan. We have no feedback, no way of self-control from events back to the planning process.” — Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices

Targets are control points. Monitoring and managing deviations to the schedule requires that there enough control points to catch the deviations as they happen. This is one of the objectives of breaking down the deliverables for the WBS.

The Best Plans Are Incomplete Plans

The Bridge Building Plan

According to the PMBOK, the Project Management Plan defines how the project is executed, monitored, and controlled. Steven Sinofsky, the former President of Microsoft’s Windows division, adds that the how and why of the project is an important piece of the plan. The post, “Engineering and social science lead to plans“, is about projects to build technology products. Its lessons are applicable to all types of projects

The Plan as a Bridge

Bridge of Sighs (Cambridge)The team owns the how and the sponsor owns the why. Sharing these through the plan creates a guideline for the project team and the sponsors.

The team makes choices about the means to produce the deliverables. At the same time, the sponsor is making decisions in response to an ever-changing environment. This makes a shared and detailed sense of the overall plan a critical element for success.

The plan acts as a “framework for making decisions.” To make informed decisions, the team needs to understand the context of the project, the sponsor needs to understand how the solution works. “The point of a plan is to build a bridge made up of the how and why.”

About the Plan

Leaderfoot stepping stones tabletThe article also presents many key aspects of a project plan:

  • The most counter-intuitive notion of a plan is that the presence of a plan means you have the tools to change the plan, together as a team.” — Plans are not chiseled into stone and publishing them provides anchor points that avoid chaos, finger-pointing and accountability dodging.
  • The headline of a plan is a solution to a problem — A plan that gives the objective as a top-line business goal forgets the how. Setting the solution as the goal forgets the why. A plan’s headline needs two legs, the how and the why, to stand.
  • The plan is a team effort  — The best plans are the plans that have the best ideas from the most people and more people contributing is more people with a real commitment to the project.
  • Write down the plan – Slides are summary bullet points. The writing process helps you check the plan for completeness and consistency. It is as important as the contents of the plan.

Starting your plan with the how and why gives context for simpler, better decision-making. Including everyone in the preparation gets buy-in and improves the quality of the plan. Together they help create a plan that makes the execution, the monitoring, and the controlling of the project easier.

The Best Plans Are Incomplete Plans

Use rolling wave planning and plan your near term activities in detail while approximating the activities that are further out.

The project manager is not a fortune teller.
Immediate next steps are easy to see and schedule. The further out you look, the blurrier the view. It is almost impossible to plan and schedule in detail activities that are to take place months in the future.

The first plans are presented at the beginning of the project. The sponsor may even request a plan to establish the project’s budget before the project is officially initiated. The common solution to the challenge of preparing a plan before all the facts are known, is to prepare the plan using high-level estimates of schedule, budget, and scope.

Rolling wave planning acknowledges that the future is hard to predict and uses higher level estimates of schedule, budget, and scope for the activities later in the plan.

Elaborate in waves.
Rolling wave planning is a type of progressive elaborationThere is more and newer information available as the project progresses, and as it progresses, you start new waves of planning, breaking your higher level plan down into more details.

Make the details match your vision.
Your planning should go beyond detailed and high-level. There are activities in between these two extremes and you should break them down to the level of detail that is visible. Your plan should have a progressive level detail matching the progressive visibility of upcoming activities.

Rolling wave planning (
Rolling Wave Planning and Progressive Elaboration (

How To Plan A Project With One Question

“What’s next?” is a question to ask others and a question to ask yourself when planning a project. Ask it and keep on asking it after every answer. String the next actions together and you have a complete project.

What’s next?
If you cannot identify a next action, the problem is not correctly or completely defined. If you do not know what is next, the next action is to find out where to get more information about the problem.

The first answer is not always the right answer.
You are starting a new project and you tell yourself the first step is to prepare the project charter. This is not the next step because you cannot prepare the charter without knowing what the objective of the project is. The real next step is to schedule a meeting with the sponsor. Ask if you can do the next action or do you need to do something before.

What are you doing?
Is there an action in your next step? Do you know who needs to do what? The next step needs to describe someone doing something specific. “Call the sponsor”; “meet the sponsor”; “the sponsor approves the charter” are clear actions describing who needs to do what. “Initiate the project” does not say what needs to be done for project initiation and it is not clear whether its you or the sponsor who does the initiation.

What is the result?
The magic word here is “to”. What is the action going to produce. You are calling the sponsor to schedule a meeting. You are meeting the sponsor to get the objective of the project. The sponsor approves the charter to initiate the project.

When do you do it?
Make a date for your actions. Give them deadlines. “Call the sponsor on Tuesday”; “Meet with the sponsor before Thursday”; “The sponsor approves the charter by Friday.”

Put it all together.
You now have everything you need to plan your project. You have deliverables; you have a list of discreet tasks; you have the resources needed and you have the dates when the actions need to be done.