How Index Card Planning Helps You to Set Realistic Expectations

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“You need it when!?”

Whether you are a project professional, or someone who manages projects for a significant portion of their working week, I’m sure you’ve been in this position before.

You’re asked to work on, or lead, a new project. The project is complex and the budget is tight.

So far so bad.

Then you’re told when the project needs to be delivered. Even though you haven’t planned the project in detail, you already have a strong feeling that your client is asking the impossible, given the complexity and the likely cost.

The problem is that until you’ve planned the project in some degree of detail it may be hard to argue that the goal is unachievable. However, by the time that you do get to plan the project in more detail you’re already involved in the project and the expectations around delivery dates have been set, at least in your client’s mind.

So what can you do to prevent this?

If this has happened to you recently, or is likely to happen to you in the near future, then the Index Card Planning approach may help you.

Why Index Card Planning works

With Index Card Planning you work as a team to identify the best approach to achieve the project goal and to create your project plan. Plans are produced in stages, starting with the goal and ending up with the detailed work products. The key thing is that the plans are produced:

  • At a workshop, so that everyone has a shared understanding of the project
  • By the project team (who understands what needs to be done), instead of by the project manager (who often does not)
  • Working as one team, rather than in their own departments or on their own

The Benefits of collaborative planning include:

  • Greater team-working and collaboration
  • A shared commitment to delivery, and
  • A breaking down of silos.

An added benefit of Index Card Planning is speed

Typically you can create a plan using Index Cards in a matter of hours and the results are impressive. When you plan using Index Cards you get a visual representation of your project that reveals whether the timeline is achievable or not. By using cards to represent both project activities and the project’s intended timeline you can see whether there is enough time to complete all of the work necessary.

So, how do you set realistic expectations?

If it looks like your project is unlikely to be delivered in the required timescales you will have already assembled all of the evidence that you need. Take a series of pictures of the plan that you produced at the Index Card Planning workshop. Summarise the problems as the group saw them, outlining where the pinch-points and problem areas are. Insert the relevant pictures in the summary to illustrate the key issues.

If you have done a good job of planning the project using Index Cards as part of a team planning activity you are unlikely to be the only one who feels that the plan is not achievable. Get others who collaborated in the planning session to provide their assessments of the plan from their perspective.

What if you have no alternative but to proceed?

There are times when, despite being high risk, you still need to embark on a project with an ambitious end date. Remember that the pre-requisite for a fixed delivery deadline is that you may need to throw more resources at the project, so if you find yourself in this position, try the following:

  • Go over your proposed plan to see where you may be able to use additional resources to bring the delivery dates in. You may come up with a plan that requires extra funding and extra risk, but may be possible. Put that alternative view forward as your option B.
  • Ask yourself where the project is most likely to fail and decide what you need to do to manage the risk of failure. Include any contingency plans and an outline cost for each risk mitigation activity. Put this forward as your contingency plan and budget.


When you have the ability to create effective plans quickly, you give yourself the means to challenge unrealistic expectations in a constructive, collaborative way. So the next time a sponsor asks you to deliver a complex project at break-neck speed don’t say “You want it when!?” Instead, let them know that you’ll have a look into it and let them know. Then get Index Card Planning!