Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

What’s the value of a plan?

It may seem strange to those of you who know me that I’m in the profession of planning otherwise known as project / programme management. For years, my life was anything but planned, work opportunities seem to occur through a combination of chance and happy circumstance. Obviously it’s been easy to post rationalise my various moves (!) but the reality was very different.

That was not however due to a lack of direction or sense of the ‘deliverable’ – there was clarity in my mind as to what I wanted to achieve and what ‘good’ looked like from a career perspective.

Which brings me to the point of this rather introspective blog!

Why is so much value attached to a plan? As a professional programme manager, I and my colleagues know that even in the most well defined projects where there is a consistent methodology which is tried and tested in the organisation, where resources are qualified, motivated and experienced, where stakeholders are unified behind the deliverables, where the solution has been proven to work, where the benefits are very clearly defined and understood – let me pause for a moment and ask if there’s anyone out there who’s worked on this type of project, I’d love to hear from you (!) The point is that even in these mythical projects, things go wrong and plans need to be rapidly revised.

In the majority of projects, the revision (sometime wholesale change) of plans is a natural and expected phenomena. In business planning, what is developed at the start of the year usually bears little resemblance to what actually happens.

So does this devalue a plan? You might ask what the point of the effort is if all we’re going to do is change it. Why have the debate, the ‘to and ‘fro’ of the normal budgeting process, the constant revision of time and tasks etc. if all that’s going to happen is that we’re going to have to do something very different at the end. You might say our ability to forecast is much less developed than our ability to respond to change quickly.

In an interesting conversation yesterday, a friend and senior executive remarked on the changing appetites in the corporate world away from large scale / visionary / strategic initiatives and more towards a results focused approach to consulting where immediate returns are of paramount importance…an ‘agile’ way of delivering change. This would appear to correspond to the above.

Let me make a case for the plan however to give some balance to this blog.

Firstly, it provides a framework for the order of things…by which I mean, what needs to happen in what sequence…easier said than done but in our increasingly ‘silo based’ world, enabling participants to see dependency in the real world is clearly important.

Secondly, it creates an expectation of when the project will be completed and what gets improved / changed / delivered as a consequence. This creates some energy, momentum and hopefully a rigour amongst stakeholders to hold those involved and indeed each other to account.

Thirdly, in a good plan you get a vision of the future which is important for all those involved and even those on the periphery. Beyond the motivational aspects, it demonstrates a direction, a strategic intent, a focus all of which are important messages for any leadership team to deliver regularly.

And to those who say planning inhibits natural creativity and flair, nonsense! In fact, the ability to respond quickly and innovatively to the changing sands of expectation, deliverable, and circumstance is critical in any project manager.


Categories: Change management, Complex transformation, Consulting, Project Management, Transformation

Tags: , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Ben, I would order your final three points as follows :

    1) First, a good plan is one where there is a vision of the future i.e. what would success look like. This also defines the spirit of the project.

    2) Second, we need the order by which things are done / milestones achieved i.e. walking through the steps to take and what we could expect to see along the way.

    3) With (1) and (2), we should be able to have a idea of when the project will be completed.

    Not everyone will want to know / appreciate (1) and (2), so it will be up to the project sponsor and manager to manage the message and communication to the wider team. However, these two people must always have the full picture in mind.

    The project manager also needs to have a good feel of whether the project’s progress is consistent with the intended spirit and have the courage to call for a pause to remind the team of (1) and (2) when required.


    • Thanks for your comment, Herbin. It’s an interesting balance to which you point….the degree of socialisation required to avoid the need for a pause and the drive to getting the project moving. There’s a cultural dimension to this as well; some corporate cultures have less patience for a lengthy decision making process which is implied by the broader socialisation requirement, which leads to the ‘pause’.
      I really like that concept by the way.


      • The “pause” I was referring to is not a strategic re-think. Rather, it could be an agenda item in one of the regular Steering Committee meetings where key stakeholders are reminded of why the project was started and what is the end goal. It is important to have such “reminders” once every 6 months (especially when implementing a 2-3 year business plan).


  2. Ben, I’m responding (admittedly with a glass of wine in my hands) on the value of having a plan. As a program manager as well, I’m forever crafting plans – whether it’s on a white board, a bit of paper, a powerpoint, excel or, dare I say, in MS project.

    I like your last point, because whenever I plan, it’s often with a bunch of people in a room working out together what the future should look like in terms of what things need to be done, how they should be sequenced and who’s going to do it. So to me it’s the ‘planning’ bit that matters rather than the plans themselves. I can’t think of a better way to get engagement, commitment and enthusiasm from people I need to do the work. And that comes from ‘planning’.

    I think it’s going out of fashion, or at least I hope so. That is the very detailed MS project plans with every minutiae of detail embedded within them. It’s basically ridiculous and alot of time wasting – as alluded to in your blog. This leads me into a separate thought but I think I’ll stop there as my wine glass is empty and I need a refill…


    • Hi Toby, I always find a glass of wine tends to thaw the creative in me! Re your point around MS Project, agreed…detailed planning of that nature is difficult and the value is sometimes questionable. However, one thing it does force upon the various stakeholders is a more realistic view of resource requirements…there’s nothing like showing an accurate timeline with existing resource allocation to challenge and indeed change stakeholders perspectives on what an appropriate team size might be….!


    • Thanks for your comments btw, much appreciated


      • True. Although I find the whole resource requirement thing an exasperating exercise. It comes down to subtle things like motivation, focus and a willingness to work late where the situation demands. There’s a certain beauty in keeping resource needs to a minimum, at the same stretching people so they are on their tippy toes whilst not actually drowning them. Resourcing itself is a large topic and haven’t checked if you have blogged on it, but certainly warrants discussion.


      • On the money…something which has always frustrated me about M&A is this perception that human capital productivity is somehow static much like a piece of equipment…I’m going to write something on this next week.


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