Progressive Elaboration Is the Only Sane Approach to Planning!

Imagine that you are planning a multi-day road trip across the country to a town which you’ve never visited before. Chances are that you will load your smartphone with maps to help you navigate the journey as well as identifying some points of interest and regularly spaced hotels along the way. What are the odds that you will plan your trip down to the hour? For most of us the answer will be pretty slim.

So why is it that some of us continue to develop plans to a level of detail which is unrealistic given the level of information we possess about the project at that point in time?

Some times this could be caused by low organizational project management maturity. Financial policies or methodology standards might require project teams to provide detailed high confidence detailed cost and schedule estimates for the entirety of a project before funding gets released. Depending on the consequences for exceeding such prematurely established baselines, teams learn to play the game by either overly inflating or vastly underestimating in order to secure funding approvals.

However, in other instances the root cause could be the team’s own desire to impose control on the inherently uncontrollable. The allure of detailed plans is compelling because they reinforce the illusion of certainty. Models are at best accurate for the instant in which they were conceived, and without significant effort invested in updating them on a regular basis, their value diminishes rapidly.

What’s fascinating to witness is the anchoring which occurs once a plan has been developed, socialized and baselined. The people who developed the plan will go out of their way to ignore or refute objective evidence that something is amiss.

This reminds me of the sadly all-too-common reports of those who have driven their cars into large bodies of water because they chose to obey their GPS directions blindly instead of their own eyes.

This is not to say that planning is bad.

The old saying of failing to plan equating to planning to fail is evergreen. But two principles muse be respected:

●        Planning is an ongoing project activity and NOT just a phase

●        The level of plan detail should be commensurate with the team’s level of knowledge about the project

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