Various quotes and phrase have been “aired” over the years about plans, usually quoting, or at least referring to, Dwight Eisenhower and not so well know one from Sir Winston Churchill, that go along the lines

Plans are useless, but Planning is indispensable

or phrases of similar meaning! Plans being useless/worthless/waste of time as opposed to the Planning being vital/essential/indispensable

This does not mean that we should not have plans! Far from it. The point being made here is that although the plan is very useful/helpful, to a point, it is the planning activity that is absolutely vital.

Would you plan a family dinner party, a home move or a holiday (yes, I know some of us take a “flyer” with holidays!) without making some sort of plan. The plan is the product – a product of what? Planning. You have to go through the activity of Planning to get a plan.

Obvious, you might be thinking, however, many plans are produced without or very little planning activity! Done this before; here is a template, simple plan I put together or someone else put together and so on. Well – this should raise the alarm bells in ANY situation: whether it is party, refurbishing the kitchen, a relocation, system upgrade or a datacentre build – we need to plan (the planning activity) and so have a resulting plan. There are a number of levels and types of plans and the same goes for the planning activity.

Why, you might ask? Well, here are some considerations!

Plan: A Roadmap, the Product

So, what is a plan

Some general definitions:

  • a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something
  • an intention or decision about what one is going to do

The second is the one I like the best as it reflects of my role in change initiatives.

Intention/decision … one is “going” to do

A project is about what we are looking to achieve, a “beneficial change” for whoever, usually the business. It is about providing an understanding as to how we are looking to achieve this initiative. We are “projecting” ourselves into the future!

The word Project is just that, projecting ourselves into the future and seeing how we anticipate/expect to be once we reach that point in time! I have now just brought to mind two very key points!

First: A Project – projection to a future point in time, with the plan being the road map to get there

Second: “Point in Time” – the roadmap (plan) can only be viewed as to how we see that future goal materialising, becoming a reality, at the “point in time” we are at – The Present, the time of the plan being put together.

This is the point about the plan being useless/worthless. What is really meant, that we need to understand, is that the plan represents an “agreement” of the way forward from here to achieve the end goal/state and therefore likely to be “out-of-date” almost immediately.

The key point here is “an agreement”. Why? What this emphasises is that the plan is a collaborative exercise to arrive at this agreement.  The plan has been drawn up with input from all relevant members of the delivery team and other stakeholders, reflecting the level of detail of the plan being put together at the time. I will explain more on this in the “planning” section!

For example, an airline flight navigator needs to plot the flight path for the pilot before they take off, with the input from the fight deck crew and the traffic controllers along that route. They do this BEFORE the plane takes off so it is filed and everyone can see the “intended” route. The point (benefit) of the plan being drawn up collaboratively is so everyone involved with the flight (project) can see what the intended route is, and plan at that point in time for the flight, and AGREE the details.

The reason for this is that if (and its more “when”) something needs to change along the way, those involved in the activity, (in this case the flight), will have a better understanding of the impact the change. Air turbulence, sick passenger, political developments, weather changes at the destination and so on, (tried to resist the obvious one – technical faults: failed).

With a plan in place it is easier to see what may need to change and so the impact of that change and because it has been drawn up with all those involved, the resolution is arrived at quickly.

The point therefore about plans being “useless” is not really true. The real point is that they are just “snap-shots” of an understanding of the roadmap, at “a point in time” and put together collaboratively for a common understanding the “planned” way forward from here, whenever that “here” is: beginning, middle or near the end of the initiative. However, we need to be aware that they can be “out-of-date” very quickly. So we just have another planning activity, with the right people, and sometimes just the PM, and update said plan!

Types of plans!

These will range from Enterprise (very long term plan for the business) right down to plans for specific activities (defining the tasks to complete that activity). I will write more about these in future articles – as a detailed series on “planning and plans”.

Planning – The Activity

Plans are the outputs of the “planning activity”. This may seem obvious, and should be, however, what is very evident is that many projects are not only just kicked off, but run, without a proper formulated plan, as no realistic planning activity has taken place. As noted above there a number of levels and types of plans and hence, by inference, we have a number of activities. There are, or should be, more incidences for planning than for plans, as the plans are only updated as a result of changes emulating out of a planning activity, hopefully for positive updates, sometimes (and even very often) as a result of issues impacting on the current plan!

This last point is the key reason why Eisenhower said that “Planning is Indispensable”

There are a number of points/reasons/explanations as to why this is true.

Logically, planning takes place first which results in a high-level or outline plan. This can be even at portfolio level and the plan, (Programme/project in this case) will be a skeleton plan at this point. Usually at this level it is a case of looking at the bigger, strategic fit of the change initiative within the portfolio and even the organization as a whole, Portfolio Planning. This is vital, that those running the organization/business area/portfolio understand the proposed changes and their strategic impact, which means involving a cross-spectrum of roles. The planning here is not looking defining the initiative’s activities, only major decision points and the main deliverable and its “benefit” to the organization, showing an expected timeframe.

So one of the key points being raised here is that planning needs to be cross-spectrum (cross-interest if you like) and so representative of these key interest areas and so “collaborative”, like the fabled “King Arthur and his Roundtable”, as a collective! Please note that collaboration is not just an “agile” term, however, it is one of the key elements to support “agility”.

As soon as the programme or project moves into its first phase, where we start by looking at the initiative and the objects overall, then the planning becomes more related to the relative and needed detail of the initiative, relevant to the timeframe/phase. At this point in time, those involved in the planning will (should) be the key stakeholders. NOT just the PM. PM as in Portfolio, Programme and Project – Manager. Yes, the PM will lead the activity of planning from here onwards (for the main roadmap/plan), meaning that we leave the detailed development activity and task planning to those carrying out the work. However, the PM should be invited to oversee this planning as the PM may provide some sanity checking to the “development plans”.

Point here being that we still must have a cross-spectrum of roles in the planning exercise and now that we are at the beginning of the initiative planning, this is vital so that business decisions are understood, Governance, release of funding regime and expectation of overall timeframes, key decision points related to portfolio and “milestones” (this term should be changed – timestones – we are talking about time when it comes to it!).

As the initiative progresses from one phase (high-level – Initiating [iso21500], Starting Up A Project [PRINCE2] or Feasibility [AgilePM] to name a few variations in a project framework) to the next, which is Planning (a phase NOT the activity – however, planning is the key activity here!), then different levels of roles are involved in the activity as more detail is needed to understand the Scope and the roadmap to realise the Benefit from a realistic understanding on how the Scope (deliverable) will be achieved.

Once again, the key point here is collaborative planning. We need to do this so everyone is in on what the initiative is looking to achieve for the business and how it will be undertaken – AND AGREE, at this point in time. One benefit of this is that when there is a need to change the plan, for whatever reason, those involved are better informed as to what the impact of that change might be and some ideas as to how to manage if a Risk, and respond if an Issue.

Throughout these two first phases, the PM is the ley role, but not the source of all information. The business understands the governance and key decision points, especially for the funding and the final benefit. The roles at the build/development end and other important roles like business analysts and advisors and, let’s not forget the change managers and those supporting the transition of the change into operations, also need to be involved, as the detail will come from them.

As noted above, The PM will then be running further planning activities, such as reviewing to adjust for updates, the past part of the plan, or revising due to a risk or an issue causing a change to the future part of the plan!

They, everyone that is part of the change initiative, need to work as a team – the whole organization needs to work as a team and the planning aspect is the central activity that binds them. Not bind as in contract, but as a cohesive team! (see my video on YouTube - A look at the Organizational Environment - Operations (BAU) and Project )

Planning is vital when it comes to understanding the scope, and therefore what can realistically be delivered, from all perspectives, Business, Supplier (technical), and Management, what needs to be delivered and why and so realise the beneficial change the business is paying for and needing. Also, when the change can be delivered and key elements along the way such as specific resources, incremental deployment, scope change impacts and so on.

Where to From Here

So next time someone chirps up and say plans are not needed, then remind them that planning is indispensable and the resultant is a plan. Even if the plan’s usefulness is rather short-lived, the benefit coming from the roles working together in planning is invaluable in providing, hopefully, a consensus of agreement as to the way forward from here AT THIS POINT IN TIME.

Often this attitude comes from a real misunderstanding and interpretation of delivering a change using “agile” which ever flavour that is. Agile does not mean no plans or no planning. Any change initiative running without the two is doomed to failure.

Planning is key.

Would you really move home, run a family banquet or renovate your bathroom without planning and seeing plan? I think not.


Author Bio

Antony della Porta has experience of over 30 years in the project management profession. He is an established professional in the delivery of strategic business change and an advisor for programme and project recovery with critical systems thinking approach. He has been an Executive Advisor and Director at GPM Global and founded “The Sustainable PM” initiative, which is a platform that is set to help PMs become "sustainable”. He is also an accredited instructor and practitioner for a number of courses in the fields of management and project management.