A Quick Planning Primer

This post is for those of you who are having to plan your own activities, or the activities of others for the first time.  Or maybe you just want an easier faster way to think about creating a plan.  Maybe you want something simple – because all the complex project management body of knowledge ideas or other methodologies are making your head explode.  For whatever reason you want to learn to make plans quickly, simply and easily – this post has your name on it.

Remember planning has three basic steps:

What needs to be done?  In what order?  On what schedule?

Everything after that is some form of optimization.  Since we are not optimizing, we can be simple, quick and easy.

List out what needs to be done. 

I like the term activities – so list out the activities that need to be done.  Don’t worry so much about how long they will take, just get the complete list written down in some fashion.

Add Order to your list.

This is hard for many people, because they overthink it – they try to find the best order (optimization) instead of a workable order.  The workable order has activities that need other activities to be done first (prerequisites) after those prerequisites.  That is all.

Add Schedule to your ordered list.

To make the schedule you need three things:  You need to know who is doing the activity, how much time it will take, and when the doer will have time available to do it.  The schedule is the hardest part.  But if you don’t have a deadline or schedule end in mind – the work will take however long it takes.

If you already know when the work must be done (which is usually why you make a plan) then scheduling will require some adjusting.

The easiest way to schedule is to take the time required to complete each activity and work backward from the last activity saying when the prior activity must be complete so that the last activity can be done in time.  Work your way backward in order, until you have the first activity due date.

Scheduling Adjustments

1) Contingency – Contingency is having a plan for the unexpected, or the expected alternative events.  If you are concerned, about bad things happening and ruining your plan, you can think though how you would change the plan if bad things happen.  This is called contingency planning.  Having a plan B or C or D is not a bad thing, depending on how important the thing you are planning is.  Knowing how you would adjust the plan if (for example) it rained on the day you planned to do yard work, may mean we work on something else instead.  The thing with contingency planning, is that the closer you get to the end of the plan, the less options we have to keep making progress.

2) Margin – allowing some extra time around each activities is called margin.  It has to do with your “confidence” in your understanding of the work or your trust in the capability of the doer(s).  If you think that it will take 3 hours to clean the house – do you only allow yourself 3 hours?  No probably you allow 30 minutes for that inevitable phone call or other interruption that will happen.  Some planners put the margin in the plan explicitly, per activity,  others include it in the planned activity time, still others use a large bucket of margin at the end.

2) Concurrency – If you have more than one person doing activities on your plan, sometimes these activities can be done at the same time.  If it takes 3 hours to clean the house, 3 people can probably do it in an hour or so.  However 9 women cannot make a baby in a month, so not all activities can be done concurrently.  Similarly, if two activities have the same prerequisite, they can be done by different people at the same time.  So if you have more people, you can often get things done faster.  Just mind the prerequisites.

A Word About Optimization

While this post is not about plan optimization, I will mention optimization here.  The thing about optimization is that you have to know what you are optimizing for.  If it is cost (get it done cheap), you will make different adjustments than if you are optimizing for duration (get it done fast).  Sometimes you are optimizing the outcome (best result).  These are the three variables you can optimize, all optimization requires you to compromise on at some of these variables, or define tolerable limits for them.  Those tolerable limits are called constraints – no more than 3 weeks, or $10000 and the result has to be as good as X defined by meeting Y criteria.

Most of what you compromise when you try to optimize your plan is your own sanity.  PMBOK, Prince II, EVM all express methods for optimization and measurement to ensure you stay within constraints.  Managing that way is good when you need to, but if you don’t need to then just don’t.  The more you try to optimize the plan, the more time you spend measuring and adjusting.  Optimization is not free.

So when you read the literature about project management practices, recognize that they are as much about optimization as they are anything else, because that is why professional project managers get paid the big $$$ – because optimization is not free.

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