Project Management Institute

New paradigms for project plans


Concerns of Project Managers

This & That

Memories of whether a project “succeeded” or “failed” are often formed by how people handle crisis. You know you have a good project plan if others refer to it in emergencies.

Wilson Mar, Cooperative Systems, Torrance, California

Do you ever feel that creating a project plan is like bringing a rope to our own hanging? It need not be that way. This article presents some quality strategies you can use to make project plans a cowboy's lasso rather than a hangman's noose.

Use project plans to coordinate rather than to control. Project plans have a disappointing reputation as a “crystal ball” that predicts exactly when events will occur. The new paradigm is that project plans are better used as a framework for coordinating work and as a tool for analyzing the impact of changes. Use project management or database software to view the same set of tasks in different perspectives (by organizational departments, job classifications, geographical area, etc.). This provides a common basis for understanding and integrating multiple approaches. Project plans help to both identify and document the tradeoffs needed to forge a consensus from among different interests.

Make use of different personalities. In today's competitive world, one can no longer just pad lead times-producers need to reduce cycle time through cooperation among specialists and use of strengths from diversity.

Have creative people make a list of possibilities. Have detail-minded people define the criteria for selection, for proofreading, or for measuring project progress. Have anxious people make a list of potential difficulties and possible contingency actions. Have confident people resolve roadblocks.

Pre-schedule frequent revisions to project plans. Plans “set in concrete” are not as useful as plans that reflect current realities. Being forced to refer to plans that have failed or plans that are not achievable creates a climate of fear and resentment. Fear corrupts plans because it forces people to make estimates to protect themselves rather than to do a quality job. Pride is a more useful emotion than fear.

Pride is a more useful emotion than fear.

Revising plans does not automatically mean that guarantees have been forsaken. In fact, while revising plans, teams have another opportunity to reaffirm their vision and renew their commitments. It is another chance to build the honesty and openness needed to get past blame and on to being creative about getting the job done. Revisions allow people to make use of knowledge learned and creativity developed during the project. Revisions give another occasion to observe and analyze the variations between estimates and results.

Empower workers to estimate their own work with estimating formulas. Many people who do excellent work have their careers damaged because they did not make accurate estimates. People can improve their estimating capability over time only if they can analyze the root causes of their estimating errors and experiment with different possibilities.

Rather than depending on elaborate inspections, give workers the training on tools to estimate their own work because they know it best.

One such tool is use of “metrics,” in which estimates are calculated by multiplying the scope of work to be done (such as the number of pages to be written, the number of customers to reach, the number of presentations to make, etc.) by “efficiency factors” (such as the number of pages created per work day or the number of cases handled per week, etc.). In essence, metrics describe the environment around a project. Metrics reflect what is probable rather than what is wished for. Metrics enable people tore-plan quickly and rationally so that expectations can remain realistic. Metrics are different from “quotas” or “standard” in that they are used by estimates to improve their own work rather than by bosses to judge subordinates.

Describe value-creating tasks rather than activities. Task descriptions such as “produce first draft,” “finalize document,” and “approve package” refer to the motions rather than the results. Task descriptions such as “generate list of ideas,” “define selection criteria,” “identify management concerns,” and “incorporate feedback” focus on what value is added along the way.

Describing intermediate products is the “work” of project planning. What product (“deliverable”) is generated along the way? What can people do after the task that could not be done before? What evidence is there that something was accomplished? What has been created or transformed? In the work of planning one can realize what is realistic, what is important, and what the key steps are (the 20 percent of the activities that accomplish 80 percent of the results). So structure project plans more as a check list of accomplishments rather than as accumulators of expenses.

Define specific and tangible milestones. A milestone is a major event in the project. Milestones are typically described in the past tense. Examples such as “receipt of proposal confirmed” and “customer signs acceptance” refer to specific and tangible evidence of completion—something you could wave in front of a crowd in joyous celebration. So instead of using “meeting held,” consider using “vision statement signed by 95 percent of employees” or some other triumph that would strengthen your resume.

Use check lists, matrices, and other supplements to project plans. Use a list of project participants and other possible “stakeholders” to ensure complete communications. Define exactly what is meant by “ready,” “done,” “finished,” and other terms and concepts used in your project plan.

Cross-reference items on two lists on an X-grid “spreadsheet.” A matrix that cross-references a list of tasks across a list of project participants provides a summary visual map of how responsibilities are allocated. A matrix that cross-references a list of project deliverables across a list of intermediate steps toward completion provides a quick visual image of project progress.

Memories of whether a project “succeeded” or “failed” are often formed by how people handle crisis. You know you have a good project plan if others refer to it in emergencies.


Wilson Mar, PMP, is an Orange County PMI Chapter member. Mr. Mar is also an active board member on the Los Angeles ASQC, Organizational Development Network, and Deming Users Groups.

He has led many organizations to achieve significant quality and productivity improvements by coaching managers in how to take advantage of modern management principles and by using computers to implement Total Quality techniques.

As the managing consultant with Cooperative Systems in Torrance, California, Mr. Mar works with a consortium of other experts to establish self-managed work teams by structuring meetings and pioneering the use of tools and techniques to analyze, design, and communicate work flows and procedures.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

JUNE 1993



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