Re-planning: Path to Success or Mark of Failure?

Project Gantt Chart
Project Gantt Chart

When did you last revise your project plan? Did it make you feel you had failed, or did you feel it was an essential step on the path to success?

I would argue that re-planning is a necessary part of projects.

Re-planning: Just part of project life

I have met people who felt that “re-planning” or revising a project plan was an admission of defeat. They feel they should have anticipated everything in advance and built it into the original plan. I think they are being unnecessarily hard on themselves.

Unless you have complete foreknowledge about everything in and around your project, then some degree of re-planning is inevitable.

Re-planning to suit your project

To oversimplify things a little, there are two kinds of project, “Waterfall” and “Agile”.

  • With Waterfall, you can really only plan one phase at a time in any detail. That means that one of the concluding outputs from each phase is the detailed plan for the next phase. This means that you have to revisit the plan with each new phase. It’s an essential part of the method.
  • With Agile, you plan each iteration or sprint as it comes up. Again, this means planning again and again. The plans may be smaller, because the steps are smaller but they are still there.

In both cases the smaller plans fit within a larger, coarser grained project plan.

How up to date is your plan?

One of the advantages of re-planning or revising your plan is that it allows you to take what you have learned from your project into account. It means that the projections in you plan are more likely to be accurate and therefore you can take action to try to achieve them. Having an out of date plan which contains unachievable completion dates is demotivating. Bring your plan up to date and then manage to the up-to-date plan!

Slack: Add a little contingency to your project

Meshed gears need "slack"
Meshed Gears need appropriate clearance or “slack”

“Slack” is a central idea of The Church of the Sub-Genius. They don’t define “Slack”, but they imply say that J.R “Bob” Dobbs is the embodiment of it.

I’m careful to respect the beliefs of others, even when I’m not sure they expect to be taken seriously, but you can find useful ideas in the strangest of places!

One way of looking at slack, is as time which is not allocated to productive activity. If we use this definition:

How can “slack” possibly make a project more successful?

Why we all need a little Slack

  • One reason for including a little slack is to account for uncertainty in estimates. If we schedule every task exactly the amount of time we think it will take and no more, and anything runs over time, then our completion date will start to slip.
  • Another reason for allowing a little slack is to allow people to review what they are doing (to “Think”, to use a once popular slogan). That way they can identify ways of doing their work more effectively and possibly improving their own productivity.
  • Finally, machines (like the gears in the illustration) which are operated without adequate clearances tend to require extra energy to drive them and break down more frequently. On the other hand, if clearances are too great, then gears become noisy and inefficient.

How do we know that we have the right amount of “slack”?

I am not arguing for inflating all estimates. Inflated estimates simply increase costs. Too much slack is as bad as too little. The signs that we have the wrong amount of “slack” or contingency are:

  • Too little slack: There is always difficulty completing any task on schedule. Even slight problems cause significant delays. Of course, there may be other reasons.
  • Too much slack: Everything is completed easily on schedule – in fact “the job is expanding to match the time available”.

How do we add “slack” to our project plan?

Slack can be added to individual tasks or to the project as a whole. It can also be added as recognised lower priority activities which we can decide to sacrifice if we need to. There are arguments for and against all approaches. Whatever approach you take, you should try and track how you are using any contingency you have added to your plan.

Is there the appropriate amount of “slack” in your project?

Look at whatever you are working on.

  • If the estimates are right “on average”, do you have enough “slack” to allow for the inconsistencies?
  • Do you have enough “thinking time”?

It’s always good to have a plan!

This is the time of year for reviewing what we have  done and thinking about what we are going to do. It is the time for making plans. The month of January is supposed to be named after the Roman god “Janus” (although there is some dispute about this)

Janus is depicted as having two faces and was the god of doorways and gates. He looked both inwards and outwards, forwards and back. In my opinion Janus is a good character to bear in mind when writing plans and reviews.

In the middle of 2014 I decided that it was high time that I wrote a “Business Plan” for my little business. I’ve done this sort of thing before for other people, but it feels a bit different when it is for yourself.

As it says at the bottom of the front page: 

“Duhallow Grey Geek started without a clear business plan. This document rectifies that. It summarizes the current situation and identifies options. It identifies how tactical plans will be created and provides an outline for the next one to two years.”

Before you start writing (or even researching) any document, it is a good idea to decide who you are writing it for. In this case the answer was: for ME! That’s right – for myself! Of course, I may want to present it to potential investors or business partners but I am the person making the largest investments in terms of effort, time and life. If I think I am going to be wasting my time and effort, I want to find out now, so I can do something more rewarding.

There are plenty of templates for what a business plan should contain, so I won’t share the detailed table of contents. In fact I found myself adding things to the standard contents. Some of the things I included (which you may, or may not, think are “standard”) are:

  • Motivation – Why was I doing this? Why was I excited about it?
  • The current position of the business – In terms of product and sales.
  • Product – What is the product? 
  • Market – Who buys the product?
  • Industry – What is happening in the industry I’m involved in? Where is the growth?
  • What resources and capabilities do I have access to?
  • Constraints – What are the restrictions that I want to apply to the business?

While I was mapping out the contents, I made a list of the questions I wanted to answer and used them as the basis for research. In the end I produced appendix material on:

  • The economics of the industry I am working in (on-line training material)
  • Sales – past performance and future projections
  • Marketing options
  • Alternative sales channels
  • Successful competitors

Predicting future sales is always difficult. In the end, I didn’t try and make predictions. Instead I projected the past performance into the future and then identified the ways I could improve it. I also identified high and low levels which I could use to plan potential investments. 

The “Strategic” document I’ve produced, documents the facts and identifies the options. On the basis of the information available, I’ve picked some things I am going to do (in fact, I’ve started doing them already) and created what I term a “Tactical Plan” for a fixed term. I’ve going to “do the actions” in the Tactical Plan and monitor the results. Towards the end to the period of the plan I will review the results and decide what to do next. 

Wash, rinse, repeat….
Is it all going to work? I don’t know. What am I going to do? That would be telling! Keep watching and you’ll find out.