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January 22, 2018

How Much Project Planning is Enough?

By Ross Gerring

Man wearing black and white striped shirt looking at bits of paper on wall, planning his next project.You’ve got this brilliant idea for a new web-based thingy. “The Next Facebook”, if you will. Let’s assume the basics such as:

  • You have some funds available to give it a shot.
    You’ve done sufficient research to convince yourself that there’s a place in the market for your thingy.
  • What now?

Compare these well-worn business quotes:

Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

The first one doesn’t mention planning at all, but emphasises the criticality of both Vision and Action.

The second makes it patently clear that if we don’t plan (prepare), then we’re setting ourselves up for failure, which no one wants.

So let’s take Vision and Action as a given.

But how much planning to do? How much is enough?

Which of the following are you?

Person A: “We’re Americans. We don’t plan. We do!”

A wonderful quote from the movie “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”.

You’d better make sure that:

  • Your vision is very clearly defined and understood by your developers.
  • Your developers are the type who like the freedom to innovate towards a common goal. Some developers dislike this, much preferring a detailed plan before they write a line code.
    You’re checking in very regularly on the project to make sure it’s staying on track.
  • You choose an Agile project management methodology

Person B: The Perfectionist

You like to plan out everything in advance, down to the last nut and bolt, and you’re not going to start development work until it’s all down on paper.

  • Will your project ever see the light of day, because you are striving for perfection? Accept that sometimes close enough is good enough.
  • Detailed planning takes time and energy and focus. The world is changing while you’re nutting all this out. Will the world have moved on in the meantime?
  • Who’s to say that your perfect plan is perfect? Assuming you’re taking feedback during development, then what gets built will be different to some degree from your specification, guaranteed. Thus your document is a guideline, not a gospel.
  • Choose a Waterfall project management methodology with its well defined structure and phases.

Person C: Somewhere in between

Just like in politics, a blend of both is likely to be your better bet for project success.

  • Your Vision still must be clear in advance. Never compromise on that.
  • Study Lean project management.
  • Focus your planning on the fundamentals/foundations of what you want to achieve, not the window dressing. Use the MoSCoW method to help decide what’s truly important, and what’s not.
  • Have the courage to validate your project in the marketplace, sooner rather than later. At least plan for your MVP (minimum viable product).
  • Learn and adapt accordingly. Ensure your developers know to expect change, and to code accordingly, allowing for flexibility. Some developers are much better at this than others. The technical team lead will know the difference.
  • Accept that change costs money. Remember that one of the most commonly quoted reasons that software projects fail is because of insufficient funding.

There is never a guarantee of business/project success, but that doesn’t stop approximately 11,000 new books per year being published on the subject in the USA. You might be a visionary like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson. But behind those great leaders you can bet there’ll be planners, and their plans.