What determines when project planning is just right?

foggyhighwayI’d written previously about some similarities between baking and project management, but a key difference between the two is that even a novice baker can procure the right ingredients, follow a plan step-by-step and still manage to achieve a reasonably tasty outcome. Unfortunately with projects, there is no set recipe. That is the Achilles Heel of many project management development programs – they can do a wonderful job of teaching you how to correctly execute certain practices but gaining the wisdom to know when is the right time to apply a given tool usually only comes through personal experience or support from a coach or mentor.

This is evident when it comes to the level of detail found when planning for a given project. What might be too much planning on one project is not enough for another. And this doesn’t even account for our stakeholders’ perceptions and biases – some might get irritated with even the smallest amount of effort spent on planning activities whereas others will want activities broken out on an hourly basis and won’t be convinced of the low value in doing this.

While it might be difficult to come up with an objective operational definition for this, here’s one ratio to consider when deciding whether it makes sense to keep planning: (Assumptions which can be efficiently validated/Certainties). When our team is faced with a large number of assumptions which could be confirmed with a little more effort, it’s likely worth investing that effort to increase our level of certainty. However, if the volume of assumptions which won’t be validated anytime soon is increasing dramatically, it’s probably time to stop planning beyond a high level of detail.

A couple of other factors to consider include the degree of similarity to projects from the recent past which our team has delivered and the size, duration or complexity of the project. The danger with these factors is that they can lure us into a false sense of security. Just because a project looks a lot like one we’ve worked on before, if we plan it to a microscopic level of detail, unconscious biases might cause us to ignore evidence of an unforeseen risk being realized.

Finally, one can attempt to analyze the costs of insufficient planning – if those are lower than the direct and opportunity costs required to plan to a lower level of detail then it’s worth stopping.

The uncertainties we face on our projects are similar to the unknowns that might be just around the corner when driving on a foggy highway at night. Planning is similar to the headlights on our cars. If we drive at a reasonable speed, they will provide us sufficient warning of the dangers ahead. On the other hand, if we drive faster than the relative visibility provided by our headlights it will be as risky as driving without any lights on.






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