But good intentions, in the form of delivering a "great plan", often undermine a plan's integrity or unnecessarily delay a project.
Wanting to eliminate the unexpected, investors and stakeholders often demand that managers "get it right". They insist on knowing the precise details of how a project will play out.
Unfortunately, their "need to know" doesn't alter reality. Uncertainty is part of life and always a part of projects. Efforts to mitigate it are essential and a key goal of planning. However, attempts to banish uncertainty completely, by sweeping it under the rug, just setup a vengeful return at an inconvenient later date.
Feeling the pressure, managers are tempted to cross an unnoticeable but dangerous border. Instead of clearly differentiating the knowns from the unknowns, they venture headlong into speculation and wholesale prognostication treating their resulting thoughts as facts. The plan's value diminishes accordingly.
Another problem is that like the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing, "planning" is sometimes the cloak for a vice - procrastination. Have you ever had someone tell you about plans for a new initiative or business only to find that six months later they're still "planning"?
5 tips for writing effective plans
- A commitment to action is essential. As you begin any plan, agree on the latest date on which action will begin - whether or not you have the "perfect" plan.
- Prominently list the known risks, exposures and uncertainties in your plan document. Make every effort to reduce them, but also reiterate those that remain as part of every progress update.
- Numbers imply precision and in plans feign accuracy. When adding estimates to plans, use ranges whose widths correspond to the degree of certainty. The greater the uncertainty, the wider the range.
- It's common for project managers to predict how long a task will take and then ask staff to hit the target. Yet, staff members are in a better position to understand the required work. Managers should request estimates (using ranges as described above) without subjecting staff to the coercion of wishful management speculation or unreasonable expectations.
- As the project progresses, teams invariably learn more about its requirements, demands and challenges. The most effective teams quickly update their plans to reflect their improved understanding and embrace change as positive. They've learned something that's now reflected in a more accurate plan.