“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
– Mike Tyson
Project plans exist for a reason. And while your odds of success improve if you actually use them, plans are all too often consigned to the rubbish bin during the execution stage of a project. Why? Even the most meticulously crafted plans get tossed aside because they struggle (and often fail) to deal with change and uncertainty. This uncertainty could be driven by changing customer demands, seasonal events, resource availability or even by a lack of sufficient historical data or analogous projects for estimation.
While project managers try to account for this uncertainty in the planning process, most traditional tools do a bad job of setting teams up for success. Project managers and teams have no choice but to move heaven and earth to ship projects on time, on budget, and to the quality standards that were agreed on initially. These heroics are not sustainable. They are also not scalable as companies seek to expand.
The Costs of Abandoning the Plan
Creating a project plan is the most effective tool in a project manager’s arsenal for aligning resources to the requirements of the project. This plan is what helps your business deliver on its potential and execute on strategy. However, a plan that doesn’t help a business cope with uncertainty can actually end up hurting the business when projects aren’t delivered on time or when projects aren’t flighted at all.
Not sticking to project plans can also hurt the team. Unclear and shifting priorities translate into randomized teams that aren’t working on the right thing at the right time. In addition, project contributors burn out when they chase deadlines that have become unreasonable because of some unexpected change. In a day and age when technical teams are stretched to the limit and it’s hard to hire new talent, this misguided commitment to unrealistic dates can be catastrophic to employee satisfaction and ultimately, the bottom line for the entire business.
Then, there are the personal risks for project managers. Committing to unrealistic delivery dates forces project managers to abide by a social contract based on bad incentives. If a project manager puts her name on a deadline and then doesn’t hit it, she feels incompetent, and she feels like she’s let the team and the company down. If abandoning plans is so painful, why then do we set ourselves up to fail?
Death by Uncertainty
The major driver that undermines the project manager’s best efforts is uncertainty. In spite of their textbook planning process, teams find that the reality that they encounter during the execution of the project is unforeseen, unpredictable, and sometimes just plain unfair. Static and rigid project plans are no help in dealing with this uncertainty.
The more detailed a static plan is, the higher the number of built-in assumptions, and therefore the more brittle the plan. This static nature makes it hard to adapt when assumptions or conditions change. A key driver of the static nature of plans is the fact that they’re based solely on tasks and dates.
Tangled in Tasks and Dates
Traditional project management systems like Microsoft Project and spreadsheets start and end the project planning process with tasks and dates. This approach causes teams to overlook the two major drivers of business success: people and priorities. The lack of connection between people and priorities on one hand and tasks and dates on the other is what makes project plans rigid and unresponsive.
Tasks and dates matter, of course. It’s just that they should enter the picture only after you’ve sorted out your priorities work items, and the people that will take on the appropriate set of priorities. This approach ensures that your allocation of resources is driven by your strategic business goals. It also ensures that you’re not over or under assigning work. Traditional tools often get this wrong because they treat resource allocation and work estimation as an afterthought. These traditional tools are also subpar when it comes to project estimation.
Inaccurate and Under-utilized Estimations
The best way to represent uncertainty in a project is by estimating the amount of effort required for the work. That being said, estimating projects is hard. The only time you know precisely how long it takes to complete a project is when it’s done. Up to the point of delivery, teams use educated guesswork to predict the future. And the bigger and more complex a project, the hazier that future. There are three reasons why faulty estimations let teams down.
First, project managers account for uncertainty as single-point estimates, that are typically padded guesses. When someone asks you how long it takes you to drive to work, you probably say something like, “somewhere between 20 to 35 minutes,” not “23 minutes.” Traffic, like projects, has a lot of variables. When plans are built off of single-point estimates, there’s no room for error or adjustments.
Second, people confuse effort with duration. Estimating work in terms of effort is very different from guessing the number of calendar days until a task will be done. If a task is estimated at 5 to 10 days, that means you expect to put in 5 to 10 full days of work in order to complete it; you’re not specifying when that work will be done. Since there are many other factors like dependencies, vacations, wait time, and availability that can impact the completion date of a task, making a guess about duration just isn’t good practice.
Third, traditional tools are designed to be used by project managers alone, so estimates are often out of sync with what project contributors know about the work they’re doing. Many project managers have good intentions when they spend a large chunk of their day checking in with their team and getting status updates. Then, they try to capture all of that input in their tool of choice, but by the time they’re done with this tedious process, it’s time to do it all over again because the project schedule is already out-of-date. No one ever has a good sense of how much work is left because the people that truly understand the requirements and constraints at the tactical level aren’t contributing to the plan.
The end result is pretty grim. Everyone seeks refuge in the siloed hell that is email inboxes and spreadsheets, expecting that those static documents will help them see the future more clearly–but they don’t. Teams deserve so much better.
A Better Way
The complex process of running a project in the modern age needs a new approach. It needs a system that deals with the reality of project planning and execution. What does this system look like?
- It starts the planning process with people and priorities, and not tasks and dates.
- It provides a mechanism for estimating in the form of best case / worst case scenarios so uncertainty and change is accounted for accurately.
- It gives the team one central location to see priorities, update estimates, and collaborate.
- It uses estimates to automatically update the project schedule anytime a contributing member makes a change.
- It provides insights and analytics to project managers so they always have their finger on the pulse of the project.
These are the core principles of Dynamic Project Management (DPM). Teams who have adopted DPM say that it has helped them execute better and faster.
Tim Hughes, Director of Solutions and Services at Taghleef Industries, says that DPM “transformed the way [the team] performed and acted and changed what they did to meet the deadlines. You don’t argue with the estimates. You change your plan so that it will work. We actually ended up finishing the project a few days early.”
Since using DPM, John Person, Vice President of Engineering, estimates that his company, Tangent Engineering, has seen a 30-40% increase in the amount of projects it can handle. “We had a project recently that normally would take three to six months to complete, but with [DPM] we laid out the plan and executed and delivered in six weeks.”
Teams like Taghleef and Tangent found a better way that dramatically improved how they plan and execute their projects. Dynamic Project Management increased their confidence in the plan, and increased their team’s confidence in them, resulting in better execution of projects and saved time and money for the business.
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