Rubbish plans: project delays – great plans: deliver

The saying “Fail to plan, plan to to fail” is so true…yet many projects kick-off without a really great plan.

Author: Fay MacDonald 27th October 2011


What is a Project Plan?

A Project Plan is an outline, documented view of how a project will be delivered, by whom and in what timeframe. It is usually compiled using a project planning software tool e.g. Microsoft Project. The Project Manager will prepare the plan to include:

  • a list of tasks and subtasks;
  • key milestones;
  • deadlines;
  • resources – the names of the people who will complete the tasks;
  • time estimates for tasks, with start and end dates and any “slack” or leeway on completion dates for individual tasks before they would start impacting other tasks or milestones;
  • dependencies between the tasks, for example, if you were to make a cup of tea, there would be a dependency on the task of filling the kettle, switching it on and the water boiling. All of these would need to complete before the water could be poured into the teapot.


What makes it a really great Project Plan?

A really great plan is one which has been prepared by an experienced project manager and which is truly validated. To validate it the Project Manager has pressed the flesh for this plan, for this particular project and with these particular organisations which are involved committed (contractually) to deliver the project.

The Project Manager if taken on board during the procurement phase will lift the lid on everything and speak to everyone who will be implicated to deliver. The key here is people, the right people and ahead of when the work is meant to start.

What makes it a really scary or rubbish Project Plan?

A Scary Project Plan = lots of surprises that are not pleasant which will cost more money and time the Project doesn’t have (and doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting) approval for.

A Rubbish Project Plan = the plan is not worth the paper it is written on. “Not invented here!” A template has been used and not updated and validated for specifics of the current project. Usually results in project delays.

Project plans which are based on a similar project which has delivered successful completion is usually a good starting point. However, the scary part happens when this is stripped back to the basics as a template. The template is then trooped out during the sales / procurement phase…everyone gets so excited at the thrill of the shiny new toy…that they sometimes forget to involve PEOPLE who know how to investigate the specifics and complexities of THIS particular situation.

Involve the delivery specialists early to help with detailed planning...before you sign the contract. It could save you time and money in the long run!

The deployment Project Manager is finally hired…which is quite often after the contract signature and telling the world that the new systems will be switched on in 3-4 months time.

Many times it will be two or three months into the “start date” of the template plan for deployment. By this time many deadlines which should have happened according to the template project plan haven’t even started. No-one on the procurement team knows how to re-plan or reschedule.

The Project Manager is tasked :

  • firstly with managing the delivery of tasks which are by then perceived to be late, instantaneously; and
  • secondly to continue validating the plan for the remainder

… If you are one of the really lucky people to be on the Project Board…you are going to have an entertaining update about a month or two in from now…prepare to be shocked.

This is like getting front row seats to the best new show in town. I can tell you, as I have been to quite a few of these in my 20+ years on projects. It is like watching a who-dunnit play, like Murder on the Orient Express…you know that something bad has happened on the project…like a murder in the play…there are many likely suspects for causing the death…but many surprises surface with plots and sub-plots.


So the moral of the story is…


Include the delivery experts during the procurement phase…there will be so many things covered up that need to be wakened up, dusted-off, excavated, extracted, polished and stirred. Leaving the details invisible to the delivery experts until near the end of what is probably following a 9-12 months procurement cycle is madness. It will simply set unrealistic expectation which at the low end of the scale will make for a bit more cost and delay and at the extreme, could risk that nothing actually gets delivered, but lots of time and money is spent trying.

Think of this in terms of a house-building project. Would you expect to get planning approval and sign-off on a fixed price contract from a builder if there had not been detailed architects drawings, validation by structural engineers, site surveys by builders with information on the above…and then a confirmation of whether the dream by the architect could be made a reality within the timeframe and budget. Architects do not get their hands dirty by excavating dirt, they do not put in the nuts and bolts, they do not have detailed knowledge of the materials to be used….that’s why each profession is considered specialist. The same is true for IT and business change projects. There are specialists for so many areas.

The Project Timeline doubles …and it has only just started!:  Hiring the deployment Project Manager 2 months after contract signature, typically means at least a 4 month delay on the timeframes that were put forward by the supplier sales team.   My colleagues in the industry and I have seen this scenario countless times over the years.  Oh, and I need to mention that this estimate assumes that there are no new suprises, like:

  • Data Migration: For large systems and large volumes of data and where there are multiple systems to migrate into one, this is a major project in its own right which will need (1) scoping and evaluation (2) planning (3) on-going management. If this has been missed and is vital for the new systems to go-live, there is likely to be significant months and even years added to the end date.
  • How will the system be designed and what are the new business processes? in terms of work required to re-design any business processes or system build configuration options. This kind of work can take anywhere from a couple of days to many months, depending on how flexible the system is and how specialised or tailored your requirements are;
  • Who needs training – is it 10- people or 1,000? that there is a feasible chance of training everyone within a short time-frame. The general rule is that people should be trained no more than one month ahead of time, otherwise they will forget what they have been taught if they are not using the new systems and processes. If there are lots of system users…this will be another big risk area…which is likely to push out the go-live / switch over time-frame. Multiple trainers and methods will need to be planned and accounted for if there is a large user community to train within a month.


Conclusion: It is possible to have a reallly great plan…which can be delivered

It is not all doom and gloom, despite the pitfalls and scenarios outlined above. Thankfully most of the Projects I have worked with have been ones where early involvement of the specialists was done, thereby having a greater chance of successful delivery against the original plan. However, I also have been called in to turnaround Projects which were floundering, failing and even totally off the rails. I would rather see more Projects in the former category, less entertainment, but less stress and happier clients.

…and FINALLY…5 STEPS to turn Dreams into reality

1 – DREAM: Dream big;

2 – MANAGE: Find an experienced Project Manager who has done this or something similar before;

3 – LEARN FROM EXPERTS: Find ALL the players and experts who will get you from A to Z; get them together to work with your Project Manager and input to the plans;

4 – QUESTION OTHERS AND QUESTION YOURSELF: Ask plenty of questions of peole who have done it before, find out their pitfalls and learning to assist you with lifting the lid on your project;

5 – BELIEVE IN SUCCESS: Expect success! It really can happen, as long as a big sprinkling of reality is thrown into the pot of dreams. If you don’t believe the plan, you probably need to be asking some more questions external to or internal to the project…go with your gut…and enjoy the success.




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