Whether you are planning professional projects or personal projects, many of the same dynamics come into play. It follows that developing skills in one area will help you succeed in the other.
Perhaps the most important point – one that takes some people years to learn – is that plans change. You can count on it.
Some business leaders say a good plan lasts around three months; others put the life expectancy at around six months. But all of them agree that all plans fall apart over time – a phenomemon that takes hold on any size project from large professional ones involving thousands of people down to personal projects involving just a few friends.
So where does this seemingly cynical view come from?
The Three Reasons Plans Fall Apart
We know from experience that three forces render plans invalid given a little time:
The first problem is that nobody has perfect information in the beginning. We simply don't know everything, so we have to schedule work with what we do know – or more accurately, with what we think we know. Moreover, we tend to make faulty assumptions, which cause a cascading set of skews in planning. All humans are biased by emotion; and cognitive shortcuts also contribute to our less-than-rational thinking.
Some of the well known cognitive biases that affect planning are anchoring (when we pick an outcome first, and then develop the arguments to prove it), the availability heuristic (when we consider only the data that's available to us, almost as if that were the only information that existed), and the focusing illusion (when during forecasting, we focus on the impact of only one set of events, even though other events are more likely and promise to have a bigger effect).
In the midst of planning we sometimes forget how limited our knowledge is and how faulty our perception may be about the situation and events that may occur.
The second problem is that things change once you get started executing your plan. One task depends on another and when the first one is late, delays cascade onto others. A resource you thought you could count on is no longer available, because of changes in somebody else's project that requires the same resource. People get sick or forces of nature cause activities to last longer than expected. All of these events – and more – threaten the overall plan.
No matter how much thought you put into your plans, you can never predict even half of the major events that transpire during the execution phase. The best you can do is add some time to your schedule to deal with unexpected occurences.
The third problem is that the goals themselves change. For personal projects, you might change your mind about what you want. For large professional projects, clients tend to request alterations during execution phase. More often than not, changes in goals require moving everything around, so whoever's in charge has to be judicious in accepting requests for modification.
Sometimes goals change so dramatically that the project no longer makes sense and the best thing to do is put a stop to it and start again.
Most business articles require a cheesy stock shot of some people in a meeting. We prefer this robot. Image by iStock.
Five Practical Tips to Improve Planning
Even though they fall apart over time, we need plans to provide us direction. Furthermore, because it forces you to think things through, and gives you a way of letting people know where you're going, the process of planning is usually more important than the plan itself.
The following tips on planning apply to all scales of project.
Identify key stakeholders and seek input from each of them as appropriate. In any case, keep stakeholders informed. Make it clear that you need to nail down the plan but you also need to agree on procedures for dealing with change requests.
For personal projects, think of who is affected by what you're doing and who you need to keep informed. To minimise your own forecasting biases, seek advice from those stakeholders. To make sure you stay aligned, look for ways of keeping them in the loop. If you depend on somebody, make sure that person knows it and can be available when you need him or her.
Match resource requirements to resource availability and note where the two don't coincide; note also where a shift in resource availability will put the project at risk. Remember that things change, so what appears to be scheduled for use on your project may no longer be at your disposal due to changes. In your plan identify when you need resources, but also allocate time to double check their availability well in advance.
For personal projects, note whose help you need and when you need it. A simple technique is to make a list of actions you need to work on over the next seven days and jot down the initials of anybody you need help from. Make sure you can count on that person's availability and double check as appropriate.
Plan time for unexpected events. Many leading businesspeople schedule as much as 30 per cent of their own time for the unexpected. A common technique in project management is to pad estimates for the same reason.
For personal projects, it's a good idea to schedule extra time for emergencies. One technique to ensure you have time to deal with unexpected occurences is to block off an hour or two a day in your calendar.
Assume you will have to make changes to your plan later. For the three reasons discussed above, you can be sure your plan will change. To minimise fallout, you can set aside time in advance to revisit and modify your plan. You might do this at pre-defined intervals - for example, once a quarter for large professional projects, or once a week for personal endeavours.
Make a clean break between the planning phase and the execution phase. Once you've decided on the way forward, get busy executing. Keep your eye on the tasks in front of you and only revisit your plan at preset intervals.
Next time you plan a professional or personal project, try using these five tips. You should find they minimise the impact of change.
Pat Brans is author of Master The Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach you the Secrets of Time Management, and is visiting professor at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business