Project Plans and the Real World

185 days ago 4 minute read
Project Plans and the Real World

Planning is key to any project's success. Many times, we plan projects in an idealized fashion, without taking into account the curveballs that the real world can throw our way. In this post, certified PMP, Scrum Master and Harvard Business Review Guide author Ray Sheen looks at the importance of planning for discontinuities. This article was first published at Ray's Sheen's blog.

Project Plans and the Real World

As an engineer, I like math. In fact, an argument can be made that engineering is just the science of representing the “Real World” through mathematical formulas. Through these mathematical formulas, we engineers understand how to make airplanes fly, or communication systems connect people around the world. We know how to manage an electrical power grid, build a bridge that supports hundreds of cars and trucks, or build an artificial heart that will keep a person alive for many years.

Engineers also know that some of the mathematical formulas that represent the “Real World” are discontinuous functions. That means that a graph of the results of the formula will show a line or surface with gaps, points or edges. The formulas help us understand that some conditions are impossible. With just the slightest change, the formula gives results that go from one extreme to the other extreme. Discontinuous functions are particularly interesting at the point of discontinuity.

So what does that have to do with project management? Well, a common failure of project managers and senior management is to ignore this characteristic of the “Real World” as it applies to projects. Projects also experience discontinuities which at an instant in time can totally change how the project must be completed in order to meet the project objectives.

There are likely to be discontinuities within all three of the major project constraints. Scope discontinuities occur when unplanned work must be done, or planned work is not needed. Schedule discontinuities occur when estimates are wrong, when resources are not available as expected, or when an external event changes project priority. Resource discontinuities occur when resources are changed – either the cost of resource or the capability of the resource. These discontinuities should be considered when planning a project.

Project Plans and Discontinuities

The project plan is the project management team’s intent for how the project activities should be completed in order to meet the project objectives. The plan is needed to communicate with team members and stakeholders what is to be done, when it is to be done, and who is to do it.

Whether following a traditional, adaptive, or agile approach to project management, project planning is integral to the discipline of project management. But these project plans typically ignore the discontinuities that happen in the “Real World.” Because of these discontinuities, some aspect of the project plan is almost always wrong. It could be that a new task or activity is required; an estimate is inaccurate so a milestone date is wrong; or a resource is changed impacting both timing and cost of an activity. Regardless of the reason, the project does not stay on the plan – a discontinuity occurs.

Many of these discontinuities are predictable. The discontinuity has occurred frequently in the past. The danger for project teams is that they believe that the project plan is fully accurate. This leads to a blind spot when it comes time to change the plan to accommodate the discontinuity. Many projects operate in a phased manner and my rule of thumb is that I assume the plan will need to be changed at the end of each phase because of discontinuities discovered in that phase. As I mentioned earlier, the discontinuity is the interesting point. The project manager must be aware of the likelihood of a discontinuity. When it is recognized, the plan must be changed to reflect the “Real World” impact of this discontinuity.

Project Planning Tips

If you'd like to learn more about project planning, check out the free Project Planning Top 10 Tips webinar, presented by Ray Sheen. Watch the on-demand recording of the live event below to learn essential tips to help you plan successful projects. Plus, get a free download of the top 10 tips as a helpful resource to use when planning your next project.

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