The Lost Art of Planning.

October 08, 2019

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Head of Delivery

I’ve been in project management for 18 years now, and one of the skills I have worked on and value most is planning.

Maybe it’s just me, but working with my team to map out a project from beginning to end - envisioning activities, estimating and sequencing them, identifying what we know (and don’t), pinpointing dependencies, risks and milestones, and aligning everything back to the project objectives - gives me the same feeling as putting the final piece into a jigsaw puzzle.


'The riddle has been solved! I can see the light! I know the path through! …'

Obviously within a matter of days (or possibly hours?), things will have changed. We need to change the plan. But does my glee disappear? Well, slightly… because let’s face it, planning is hard, intense and sometimes detailed work - and when it’s scuppered, it’s disheartening. But as a good project manager, I get back on that horse and re-shape the plan until once again my team and I are satisfied, and confident that we can deliver the project successfully.

Which gets me to my point. It seems people are using this (as well as other reasons - i.e. rhymes with “Shmagile”) not to plan.

"What’s the point of planning if the plan is going to change?"

But in a nutshell, that is what the art of planning is all about. The ability to not only use your imagination, experience and logic to create a solid initial plan - but also for the plan to be robust and flexible enough to deal with change. The best plans also take into consideration assumptions, mitigate risk, and are malleable enough to be quickly re-shaped to keep the project on track, no matter the bumps in the road or missing pieces of the puzzle.

However it seems planning has truly become a lost art.

My suspicions were confirmed when I recently interviewed candidates for a senior project management position. As part of the interview process, I asked candidates to prepare a high level, relatively simple project plan for a CMS-driven corporate website to be rolled out in 5 languages. Out of five candidates, only one managed to create what I consider to be a “professional” project plan - well thought out, logical, deliverable. The rest were, well, a mess - and clearly showed they had little experience in planning.

It did make me wonder - why is planning no longer a prized skill in people’s arsenal? I’m pretty sure I’m not a dinosaur... have I missed something? My hunch is that planning has suffered some pretty serious PR mishaps:

  1. The mega GANTT chart that no one apart from the project manager understands - or can edit.
  2. Teams burned in the past by poor project planning (i.e. commitment to impossible deadlines by PMs that have planned in isolation)
  3. The association of planning with the equally unfashionable Waterfall methodology
  4. The advent of Agile (and all its flavours) and the incorrect assumption that planning is not required - or that managing tasks is “planning”
  5. The idea that projects - especially those that are highly complex - are too difficult to plan, and/or change too much and there’s no point in planning them

I’m sure I will think of others. But the sad result is that planning has developed a bad reputation. So what do we do? Relegate it to something of the past as we have “agile” now, and don’t need it? Or double-down and make it a key focus for improvement? For me, it’s the 100% latter. Not only are clients begging for better plans and timelines (including Agile projects), project teams are as well. That is why at Reason, we are investing heavily in our planning capabilities, ensuring that all projects conform to our planning and delivery framework, and have robust, flexible plans powering them to the finish line. We are also working on our own delivery manifesto that hopefully debunks myths around planning, raises its profile, and makes it an integral part of any project.

Here’s a sneak preview:

  1. Planning and task triaging is an integral part of every project, whatever the methodology. No methodology negates the need for planning, especially Agile. Continuous planning is required. Always.

  2. Agile + Flavours (Scrum / Lean / XP) are development methodologies, not project management methodologies. Agile can harmoniously sit within, or run alongside PM methodologies, each with their own realms and remits.

  3. If you can plan out a project, do so. Good planning de-risks projects. So wherever possible, projects should be planned out so anything that will trip up the project can be anticipated and mitigated in advance - i.e. hard dependencies, risks, unknowns, holidays, etc.

  4. Agile should not be the default, especially if it’s not required. Always remember, Agile adds risk to your project - it does not de-risk them (or make them cheaper, faster, etc.). The number of times I have seen Agile being used unnecessarily when the project could have been 80-90% planned from beginning to end is frustrating, especially when the project fails as a result.

  5. Use your common sense to plan and deliver projects - don’t be shoe-horned by a particular methodology Every project is unique, and should therefore be planned accordingly. Shoe-horning yourself and your team to one methodology and trying to fit the project in is backwards. Everything - how you are working, the tools you use, how you plan - should be based on the requirements of the project. Project-centric, common sense management. More on this in my next post “Forget methodologies - just use your common sense”.

  6. MS Project does not mean “waterfall”. Do not equate MS Project (or any similar tools) to Waterfall.

  7. JIRA is not a planning tool. JIRA is a task management tool. We use JIRA alongside a higher level project plan to map out activities, milestones, dates, costs.

  8. Complex projects require complex thinking. Don’t be afraid! Sit down with your team and go for it. Phase it up. Chunk it up. Map out the details you know - and plan for the complexities you don’t. Your project will thank you for it!