Mass-producing Frustration: Why “Good Planning” Often Leads to Failed Projects

In engineering offices and construction trailers all over the world, promising projects suffer delays, cost overruns and missed output projections. In response, the collective finger of blame points to everyone’s favorite excuse: “bad planning.”

If bad planning is responsible for failure, it stands to reason that “good planning” should be the savior. And by “good planning,” conventional wisdom means “more planning”: more pages of tasks, more lines of specifications, and many, many more details.

But after 27 of years as an operations analyst and process consultant on some of the most complex production systems in the world (think automobiles, airplanes and off-shore drilling, for example), I know that good planning – at least as it’s commonly understood – is not the answer: it’s the problem.

The devil really is in the details

What goes wrong? Most planning is based on an earned value systems model of work breakdown structures that make it relatively easy to assess cumulative costs. But the granular level of detail that’s good for accounting is not so good for project managers. By nature, work breakdown structures are linear, hierarchical – they do not reveal (or account for) the dependencies or “hand-offs” among plan elements, the things that must be done before subsequent steps can be fulfilled. While “good” planning does define the work, it doesn’t define the relationships or – just as perniciously – it attempts to define all of them.

But relationships are precisely what a project manager manages. Excessive detail creates a needle-in-the-haystack situation that inhibits corrective action by obscuring the truly relevant. The more details in the plan, the more difficult it is for people on the ground – project managers and their teams – to make the on-the-fly adjustments that are absolutely necessary for successful implementations.

Just as no one would advise commencing a project without planning, I am not advocating planning without details. But I do believe in setting the right level of detail: only as much as an organization can manage. Much of the project detail should be defined in simple checklists and work instructions – and not much more. When the level of plan detail is appropriate, project teams can anticipate the consequences of any change in a given line item; when projects are over-planned, consequences are impossible to forecast and managers become incapable of responding effectively. They become (to borrow a metaphor) lost in the forest, incapable of finding the right trees. As problems arise, the project becomes susceptible to delays. The project team can’t see the right course of action. Deadlines are missed, and to compensate, project meetings become long, tedious affairs in which managers defend past actions to deflect blame. The planning everyone once praised as “thorough” is now exposed as “unmanageable.”

Forget “plans” and focus on “plays”

In reality, project problems are not a possibility, but an inevitability. Things go wrong, and the more “things” there are in a plan, the greater the likelihood that small failures will lead to larger ones. That’s why more planning, in itself, can never lead to timely and efficient project completion. Burdened with details, large plans become boa constrictors that squeeze the air out of any given process, suffocating hopes for success.

The path to success, therefore, is not more planning, but a focus on effective execution that anticipates problems and has the flexibility necessary for addressing them. Consider football: no amount of planning can dictate success on the field; in fact, excessive adherence to a plan would constrain a coach, not help him. What the coach needs is the ability to implement plays – intelligent execution – appropriate to the immediate situation on the ground in front of him.

In order to execute intelligently, the coach needs:

A clear view of the situation: What is core to the status of the project? Good coaches/managers make the work and the obstacles to progress visible. When the project flow is clear to the team, they are able to direct resource time and effort to that smaller subset of activities that make a meaningful contribution to the project goal.

Common goals: There is no room for players trying to pad their “stats” when you’re trying to win the game. Success means perfect alignment among all team members. In a project, there is no such thing as a “balanced” scorecard. Replacing tactical metrics (productivity by discrete tasks) with one metric concentrated on the overall output aligns everyone’s work with the ultimate project objective.

Collaboration: The team must agree on the general strategy of action and their role in it. Instead of pursuing individual agendas, the team cooperates toward the common goals through transparent communication of the project’s status, and the necessary next steps for moving the project forward.

Planning for dynamic action

Planning will not, and should not, go away. But good planning doesn’t mean more planning. More planning defeats its purpose by burying the project team in detail it cannot manage. If we are to replace frustration with success, then smart project plans must fit the size of the team that drives the execution of the plan and manages the uncertainties of execution. Planning is not an objective in its own right, the plan’s sole purpose is to enable and guide execution. Better planning anticipates problems and gives project managers the tools they need to take corrective actions as they are needed. By substituting dynamic execution for static adherence to overly detailed plans, project managers acquire the power to make workflows work.

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