3 Reasons Why Most Project Plans Are Useless

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If I said that “it never ceases to amaze me that so many project schedules suck” then I’d be lying. It’s not that I’m easily amazed. It’s just that having worked in project management for so long, and for so many different companies, I’ve seen first-hand that most project plans are just not that good.

Planning isn’t new, it isn’t difficult and it isn’t rocket science. Planning is simply the process of working out the steps required to achieve a goal, along with the resources and effort necessary. So why is it that poor planning is so common? I’d like to suggest three problems behind this ongoing issue.

The first problem is an unclear goal

I’m sure you are familiar with this problem and as irritated by the reasons for it as I am. It is the failure to clarify just what the goal is, in terms that everyone who needs to be involved in the project can understand. Sometimes the project goal is wrapped up in jargon, weasel-words or management-speak, so that you get something this:

“Our goal is to introduce a paradigm shift in our resource optimisation capability so that we maximise our revenue-enhancing activities across the board and take our organisation to the next level”.

Instead of something like this:

“Our goal is to implement a new work management system in the Planning, Operations and Finance departments by 1 December so that we increase the productivity of the field engineering force by 20% within 12 months of implementation.”

The first goal is completely made up but you can see how difficult it is to understand exactly what is required here. The reason is that it is full of management speak, instead of plain and simple language. It doesn’t specify what needs to be delivered, where it needs to be delivered or when it needs to be delivered. In fact, it doesn’t even say with any clarity what the required business benefits are of achieving this goal or over what timeframe these benefits are expected.

The second statement has about as many words, but they provide clarity on the What, the Where, the When and the Why:

  • The What is the new Work Management System
  • The Where is the three departments – Planning, Operations and Finance
  • The When is by 1 December. It is also within 12 months of implementation
  • The Why is to increase productivity by 20%

That provides a great start for planning, which gives you the How and the Who.

Yes, this is a high level statement, but it is a simple goal that anyone can understand and use as the basis for starting to plan.

The second problem is lack of collaboration

If you start your project off without holding some form of kick-off meeting or workshop you will spend more time sorting out disputes and failures in communication amongst your team than you need to. The people working on your project may know why they need to be involved in the project. However, they may not understand what specific activities they need to be involved in, nor who they need to work with in order to achieve them. As a result their contribution to the project is likely to be a world away from the sort of proactive, collaborative efforts that you need, these days, when no-one has enough time and peoples’ work commitments are often decided by who screams loudest and longest.

You need to get teams working together, rather than in isolation so that you minimise delays and rework and maximise the likelihood of success. You can boost your team’s collaborative approach by organising a kick-off workshop or meeting, so that everyone gets to understand what the project is about, why it is important and who will be working on it with them. By holding a kick-off meeting you create a shared vision of the project and a sense of team spirit at the start of the project that you can build on as the project progresses.

The third problem is fragmented planning

Let’s imagine for a moment that you have five teams who need to work on the fictitious Work Management Project. Each team may have its own work plan or mini-plan, but unless they all work together to ensure that any interdependencies are cleary known and communicated, they all risk running into problems of coordination because activities across the teams are not aligned, constraints are unclear and progress against plans is not visible.

Why Index Card Planning works

The beauty of Collaborative Planning is that the teams all contribute to a single high level plan which includes all of their respective activities. The process of creating a single plan throws up potential dependencies, whether between the teams or else on others outside the project. That’s OK since you want to know about these now in order to factor in any work needed to manage them. However, that isn’t the only benefit. By planning together everyone gets a common view of what needs to be done, by whom, and by when. This means no more mis-aligned activities, overlooked tasks or lack of ownership.

So, collaborative planning is great for creating one team, with a single goal and a plan for achieving it.