Project planning – a satellite image or a route map?

The strategic level of project management is very different to the way things look at the coal face, and the right approach needs to be taken at every level of planning and delivery.

We could think of project planning like using a satnav to complete a journey. At the visioning stage, we zoom right out. There is very little detail, but we can see the entire journey we’re setting out on, from start to finish.

For strategic planning, this is great. This view gives us an overarching view of the need for the project and its potential benefits, as well as the likely costs, risks and resource requirements. It would be unrealistic to try to apply a lot of detail at this point.

Once the journey is under way, someone needs to zoom in further, to see the detail as the planned route unfolds. Of course, once we’re zoomed in it’s much harder to see further ahead on the journey.

So if we were to only apply project management tools at the top level, without feeding all of that forward planning and good communication into the detailed operational work, we would never deliver the best possible results from our projects.

For example, how far will your grand plan for production plant upgrades be carried by your teams, if the production manager never informed the electricians before they ordered the new equipment?

I have used this example because one of my clients, a national manufacturing organisation, had this exact issue, so I know it happens.

The principles of Agile Project Management handle these problems very well. For example, where detail is just not available for later parts of the journey, the agile project manager will leave those sections at the higher, ‘zoomed out’ level. The detail is added later once it begins to come into view.

So an essential project management skill would be to judge how far we can and should zoom in, and at what stage. Furthermore, when do we stop referring to this process as project management?

A good proportion of the people who attend my training courses do not consider themselves to be professional project managers, yet on a daily basis they are expected to deliver work which requires structured planning and feeds into a higher strategic vision.
Often they know that stepping back and planning the work will lead to a better result, but they are not given the time, the tools or the skills to do this.

Great strategic project managers remember that the planning they have done at that higher level also needs to be done again and again at more and more detailed levels as they get closer to the actual tasks.

The essential skills are about applying the right tools and skills for this approach, knowing what is appropriate at every level of ‘zoom’. If we tried to apply full-blown project management methods at every level, nothing would ever be delivered.
We need a truly scaleable set of tools, and the skills to apply them, which can then be used throughout the entire journey to give us high level satellite images as well as a set of detailed route maps.

If this blog rings some bells with any issues you are having with your projects or project teams give me a call on 07976 395754 and have a chat about what could be done to encourage the right approach at the right point or have a look at my video for more about how I can help