Could it be that project management needs less planning, to achieve flexible collaboration?

During our month focussed on projects & project management, it’s time for a contrarian view. Last month, guest blogger Tony Boobier suggested we give up setting goals. In this post, guest blogger William Buist takes a shot at planning.

Over to William to explain why he is sharing a useful idea, not just playing devils advocate

Project management, two words that fill most people either with delight or horror! But why? In my experience “managing” projects to deliver great output, ahead of time and at lower cost is not a skill of management, but collaboration.

A need for some project planning

Let’s look at a definition. A “Project” is just a self-contained process to deliver a specific outcome at a specific time. Usually it will involve a team of knowledgable, skilled, experienced people. Those who have to work together effectively. 

That suggests a need to coordinate the work, or, for want of a description, ‘management’ and ‘planning’.  It’s a truism to say that plans cannot deliver the outcome. But the planning process helps people to have clarity about the expectations of them. 

It informs their understanding of how their knowledge, skill and experience will be brought to bear on the work. Of course, every project will have a number of outputs along the way. Ones that need to be coordinated between those working to deliver them.

They also need sponsorship, for guidance, scope clarity, and budget. That also means ensuing that sponsors know that the project can achieve it’s aims, and when. Plans help to clarify all these aspects of a project.

That’s a good thing, until it starts setting the timing and effort of the work too closely. When it does that, it stops people thinking innovatively, suggesting change or supporting others. The plan becomes the controller, the assessor, and the critic.

The dark side of project planning

Detailed plans give clear oversight to project sponsors. But they take decision making away from individuals. Their ‘planned’ activity drives what they do and they can become introspective. Focussed on the task rather than the outcome, far less the mission of the project. 

This problem is at the heart of collaboration, and boils down to trust. If we trust the team to deliver. To use their skill and experience to manage their own detailed work. Planning becomes a means of sharing information, not driving specific activity. 

Losing sight of the big picture

If people lose sight of the bigger picture, because they are required only to focus on their task, then scope changes can slip past almost unnoticed.  External forces end up changing scope. Rather than it driving innovative ways to deliver the original scope. 

Beware of thinking that individual work planning is outsourced to the planner. Requiring them to do replanning when events change circumstances. From the team members point of view planning at too detailed a level implies limited trust in their skills. It is enervating, demotivating, and self defeating. 

My experience of large projects is drawn mostly from the financial services sector. Managing large and complex projects, with many people over many months, works best when planning was in ‘the sweet spot‘. By that, I mean it’s detailed enough to inform, but not so detailed as to direct. It’s a fine balance, and it relies on open, trusted communications. The hallmark of collaborative working.

The key is to plan at a level that gives people the freedom to use their skill and experience. Whilst still guiding them on direction and overview. As a guide, that means planning at a level that describes what each person will deliver over a week or two. Which still frees them up to plan their own time and effort within that. This is a principle that sits at the heart of Agile projects.

The benefits of less planning

The win for the business is that their people’s hard won experience and skill is better utilised. They will be more naturally collaborate. 

That is because everyone is (or is more likely to be) invested in the bigger mutual goal. They know that success can only be realised together. They will support each other when the unexpectedly difficulty arises. When external change pressures the project, or its scope. 

Whenever I see complex projects delivering effectively I find a team that has been freed from the constraints of  planning. One that instead respects the skills of the people. Rewards collective working and encourages collaboration. When it’s at its best the costs of coordination disappears and the speed of delivery accelerates. 

A call for you to do less planning

Please don’t just plan in order to “manage” the project, plan in order to unleash the potential of your team. To see what they can achieve when freed to do their best.

Thanks to William for that heartfelt advice. What about you? Have you slipped into micro-managing your projects?

Could you embrace the benefits of Agile Working better by less planning & more collaboration?

A call for less project planning certainly sounds a contrarian view. But, I’d like to hear what you think. Do you agree with William & if so, how are you putting that into action?