Project Planning: Not Enough or Too Much?

People involved in project development will tell you that diligent planning is critical to project success. That seems obvious. But if you ask if most of their projects meet their target in terms of cost, schedule, scope, and business goals, they would have to admit they don’t. The studies back that up. The Standish Group’s 2009 Chaos Report “shows a marked decrease in project success rates, with 32% of all projects…delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions” says Jim Johnson, the Group’s chairman. “44%…are late, over budget, and/or with less than the required features and functions, and 24% failed which are cancelled prior to completion, or delivered and never used.”

Why the dismal report? Dan Vining, Business Leader for SSOE’s Project and Construction Management Group at SSOE and an expert in project planning, cites three key reasons why total project success is so elusive…and they all point to planning deficiencies.

  • Spending too much time or effort on the wrong kinds of planning activities.
  • Not spending enough time understanding the owner’s business purpose and perspective.
  • Not enough integration of services between project phases.

TOO MUCH or the wrong kind

The idea that you can’t improve what you can’t measure applies to how project success and failure are typically analyzed. If multiple metrics focus on the project performance as a whole, it is difficult to hone in on where the failures occur. The more useful approach is to look at the performance of individual disciplines or phases. Dan Vining suspects that this will reveal links between planning weaknesses or poorly defined scope and performance deficiencies. Too much of the wrong kind of analysis leads to skewed conclusions and is of little help in addressing the problem.

Many times, project managers focus on the volume of data they can track and, in turn, report on. Dan Vining explains, “Capturing a lot of detail is fine, but a project manager doesn’t bring value by reporting all of these details to the team, but rather by analyzing the data and bringing trends, deviations, or items of note to the group to be addressed.” He advises, “Stick with the fundamentals and don’t let it become a ‘science project.’ I like to follow the KISS principle “keep it short and simple.”

Another prime example of wasted time that passes for thorough planning is long face-to-face team meetings. While it’s essential to meet as a group on a regular basis, meetings shouldn’t be a test of endurance. Many project teams have been subjected to a series of detailed status reports when they really needed an opportunity to get questions answered and issued resolved.

The problem of NOT ENOUGH

Dan Vining believes owners need and want resources who provide solutions. To do that requires the project manager to take adequate time up front to understand the owner’s business purpose. This goes beyond discovering which of the standard project delivery goals—scope, schedule, budget, quality, or safety—is most important to the owner and managing the risk to protect the goal.

A skilled project manager will go much deeper to understand the business goals the owner must achieve to realize the financial return that will justify the project. Vining explains, “This could involve a definition of the what building needs to be (space, lighting, temperature, etc), the labor cost per operating unit, the energy consumption per unit, units produced per hour, waste generated per unit, time to market, and more. All these variables impact the cost of the final product. A good PM tailors the execution of the project to best satisfy these inter-related factors.”

Integrating disciplines and services.

A survey carried out by Bull Computer systems revealed that 57% of projects fail due to inadequate communication and 39% fail due to poor scheduling. But Vining’s experience tells him those stats are actually the cause and effect of poor integration of the various project components or players.

“When engineers in one discipline have to interface with a different discipline or construction managers, or a procurement team, mistakes are compounded. It’s called ‘white space’ and it’s where many project managers fail. A project manager needs to know how to integrate one activity and group of people with the next.” Vining asserts that being a good integrator can’t be accomplished by following a checklist. It is more intuitive and it comes with experience. It requires the ability to visualize how the project needs to come together and how events in present time affect activities in the future.

Ultimately, project managers determine the appropriate amount of time and effort to be spent on each aspect of planning. They need to be multi-dimensional—as knowledgeable about business as the disciplines represented in the project team. They have to be decisive leaders who are willing to take personal responsibility for the project. When selecting a resource for a major project, it’s important to spend enough time evaluating the PM.

For more information on project planning, contact Dan Vining