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Monday, July 23, 2012

Lather, Rinse, Repeat - Why We Need to Re-Plan Projects

[Also available as a podcast]

Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

You will find these instructions (or some variation) on most shampoo bottles. Why include these instructions in the first place? Does it mean that the shampoo is actually not that good and you need a double dose? Or, could it possibly be they think you are extra dirty and need the extra round of cleaning (which might be kind of insulting)?

Actually, it is neither of those reasons.

The shampoo is not necessarily faulty, nor are you likely that gamey. The reason they put those instructions on the bottle is that they know the secret of doing a job effectively. The first round cleans most of the pollution, grease and dirt out of your hair - the next round does a final pass to make sure your hair is actually clean, and not just "less dirty".

Other two-part solutions abound - floss before you brush your teeth; your teeth will be healthier if you loosen up the stuff that is stuck between your teeth and then brush and rinse it away.

Painting a room? Don't ever believe the "one coat" label on the can or the brush. Every good painter (DIY or professional) knows that you need (at least) two coats for a good finish. One time round is simply not enough, unless you are freshening up the room with the same exact colour within a couple years. But if you change colours, you will need two coats, and possibly a primer/sealer before that to help hide the old colour. And the bigger the colour change between old and new, the more coats you are likely to need to cover it.

Not surprisingly, the same approach applies to Project Planning, however we are not limited to just a second pass; depending on the length of your project you may end up doing multiple rounds of re-planning to make sure that things are going to get done effectively.

Because - as every Project Manager knows, your project plan becomes obsolete the moment you save it or print it out.

Your Project Plan Has a Best Before Date

Every project plan has a best before date. What that date is depends on a number of factors, including the number of "moving parts", work streams, dependencies and the overall complexity of your project. Even "set in stone" dates can change, for example you have had training booked in from several months ago, and then a tornado flattens the training center in the middle of the night. One way or another, you are going to have to adjust your plans - delay or relocate.

As Project Managers, we are actually tweaking the direction every day  - usually small changes, adjustments, a day or two here, a resource there. Gradually, bit by bit - the reality of your project wanders off away from the path you originally set out on. You might even need to continue on the path you are on right now - but for everyone involved, it is important that you do so consciously, as part of the plan. Or perhaps you need to get back on track, regroup, assess and re-chart your path back to the destination.

When your project is starting to look substantially different from the plan, or every month or so, whichever comes first, you should be reviewing and adjusting the overall plan.

Because after all - we don't actually have an auto-pilot.

How Autopilot Works

You may not know this, but most commercial aircraft can take off, fly and land by themselves. We are all familiar with the middle part - the flying part, but they can actually do the rest as well. They rarely use it for takeoff and landing, but they do test it from time to time when the conditions are good, with a human hand ready to take over at a moment's notice. Fortunately for us, projects are so complex and conditions so variable that no-one has yet invented an "Automatic Project Manager" to initiate and complete projects.

What is worth looking at, however, is how autopilot actually works. Every moment of your flight, you are flying slightly off-course. The wind nudges you a little up or down, left or right. If your plane kept flying in that adjusted direction, you would end up hundreds of miles or more from your destination. Fortunately, the auto-pilot knows where you came from, where you are now, and where you are supposed to end up. So every so often, at least every few minutes, the plane adjusts the rudder or ailerons to put you back on track. 

Your project does not have an auto-pilot. Which is fortunate, as you would then not have a job much longer. Fortunately, they have you - the Experienced Project Manager to perform that function.

As long as you actually do the job of checking your direction and adjusting course back to the destination, that is. If you simply set your plan and then execute your project without checking that you are still going in the right direction, you will easily end up hundreds of miles from where you had planned to in the first place. Or, you might get "stuck in a spin" and fail to make forward progress, and spiral down, down, down until you crash.

So you should plan to make regular course adjustments - beyond the minor day to day tweaks. You need to periodically check all of your instruments, see where you are now, and where it looks like you are going, and update your project plan. There is even a Project Management word for what you do when you take stock, verify where you are and update the plan and direction. It is called baselining. It's important enough that they invented a word for it, so we might as well use it, right?

Another reason we need to re-look at the plan on a regular basis is that none of us can see very well beyond the nearby stuff  - at least not the detail. And most of the time you can imagine, but not actually see the far-off destination, which may still be well over the horizon. So let's start with a Project Eye Exam to see if that can help.

20/20 Is Only Good For a Short Distance

In my pre-teens I needed to get glasses. I had them for many, many years until I braved laser vision treatment. Best decision I ever made regarding my eyes - but anyway, the point here is that I needed corrective lenses (and eventually a permanent treatment when glasses could only do so much and things were still a bit fuzzy) to see as well as someone with "normal" vision.

But the thing with "normal" vision, or 20/20, is that it is still limited.

20/20 simply means that you can see at 20 feet what a "normal vision person" should be able to see at 20 feet - usually measured by being able to read tiny letters.

And really - 20 feet is not that far away. You can throw much farther than that.

At 25 to 30 feet, well, almost nobody can read the bottom line. And although those mountains are certainly pretty in the distance, you can't see the ski chalet or the sunbather on the upper balcony, or the title of the book they are reading - let alone the words on the page, which are the same size as the bottom line on the chart 20 feet away from you.

Our "detail" vision is limited to the things near to us. So you go out and buy a telescope - and suddenly you can see the chalet. Zoom in, and you can see the sunbather. Up the magnification and you can see the book title; notch it up further and you can read the page they are on (if only you hold the telescope steady enough and if they would just hold their hand still - it is getting to a good part!). However, you can no longer see the mountain. Perspective changes and limits what we see at one time. (You can't see the forest for the individual trees!)

The same rule applies to projects - although we generally do not speak in distance, but in time and deliverables.

The book that sunbather was reading looks really good - I think I'll go over and check it out.

When we draw up our project plans, we can define and be reasonably able to execute tasks on the schedule that are defined in days or even hours - but the further out you go, the details become more fuzzy. And so far, there is no Lasik or project telescope that has been invented that can help with resolving all of those far-off project details.

However, some things we can define (barring major risk events) with great precision into the far future - these are the anchor dates, deadlines, due dates and when you have specific booked activities. But for the rest, things tend to be more fluid and variable. And we need to keep these variable things on track if we ever hope to actually meet those deadlines, due dates and be able to deliver training course XYZ on June 1, two years from now.

It is the variability of those tasks in progress that require you to keep checking and correcting your course - and adding more and more detail.

This is a longer walk than I expected - the mountain looked so close! Well, I am almost there now so I better keep going...but I better grab some snacks along the way and work my way around that wet patch up ahead.

You can plan for what you can "see" - and have a rough plan for the next stages of the project journey. You can map things out in great detail to make it to the closest hill, but then you need to assess the lay of the land, navigate around the swamp you did not know was on the other side, and chart your next leg in detail to the next major point or milestone. It is in this way that we navigate through the world and through your projects, and make it to the destination on the other side.

One rule of thumb I have used in my project planning is this:
- Over the next 30 days, we can define and schedule tasks at the resolution of a day.
- Between 30-60 days, the resolution is around 2 days, give or take.
- Between 60-120 days, the resolution is at one week.
- Between 120-180 days, the resolution is at 2 weeks or more.
- Over 180 days, the resolution is at 1 month or more, and will become a summary task with more detail to be added as we get closer.

(Note that this is for duration and scheduling of assignments, not necessarily effort, though we will understand that better the closer we are to it as well).

Every time we reviewed the project plan and updated it (every month or two, if things were going relatively smoothly, or more often if not), we would review what had been accomplished so far, and then look out over the coming months and break tasks down into finer resolution and detail roughly following the model above. In this way, we had a rolling project plan with progressively more and more detail as we went along - but still a high level overview as we looked out farther into the future.

At every stage, the mountains get closer, but they are still just a little ways further off, until you finally reach your destination at the ski chalet. 

The sunbather is long gone, but fortunately they left the book behind. You are also looking to rent some ski gear, because, well hey - it was a long walk and now it is early winter. But the upside is, you are here in time for ski season - and the powder is fresh, awaiting your first run. And when you finish your last run of the day, you can sit by the fire and read that book you have been looking forward to for so long.


This article has taken us on quite a journey - from the label of a shampoo bottle to flying across the country, stopping in for an eye exam and walking long-distance to a ski resort. A mix of metaphors, perhaps, but each had a part to play in the overall lesson. 
  • You need to be aware of your perspective when you are developing your project plan - you cannot see very many details past a fairly short period of time (weeks, or a few months). Your long-distance detail vision is not as good as you think it is. You need to Review where you are and add detail for the next group of tasks as you go.
  • You need to make course corrections  along the way. You need to Re-Plan to keep things on track, if you start to drift off course.
  • Finally, you need to do it more than once. Perhaps not as often as an airplane, which is every few minutes - but you do need to Repeat it regularly.

So the lesson can be summarized as: "Plan your projects, and on a regular basis, Review, Re-Plan, Repeat".

Cheers and good luck with your projects. Until they develop a Project Auto-Pilot (and I hope they never do), we will just have to keep everything on track ourselves.

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