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A Too-detailed Plan Can Become Nearly Impossible to Maintain (#5 in the seris Effective Planning for Big Projects)
By Timothy Prosser

First a disclaimer: I don’t claim to be the world’s expert on project management, and I urge anyone who is involved in or interested in project management to seek good sources of information and study, as this is a profession requiring a lot of skill and knowledge to do well. That said, I believe my decades of experience (planning projects up to 4 years in length and over $1 billion in cost) gives me some basis to write this. You may notice that I tend to focus more on the timing aspects of large scale plans. I am not ignoring the financial side of the discipline, but not stressing it either, because I have usually had a parallel financial planning effort, run by accountants and financial experts, to lean on. You may also notice that I am trying to address the realities, the impact of human nature, on the work. That said, be aware that good planning requires a focus on all three major components of business processes and projects: time, cost, and quality. I have summarized with a list of suggestions at the end, and hope you find this entry helpful.

For a number of reasons you will need to limit plan complexity, often in the face of managers who will want their events included in ridiculous detail. When you have hundreds of events in a plan, you have a lot (and possibly too much) to track. You will need to quickly and efficiently find the right events and change the dates to reflect delays, changes in the program scope and timing, or events that actually occurred. That means the plan will require a lot of careful attention, and if it is huge you may not be able keep up with it all by yourself.

Errors happen. Since humans tend to have roughly a 1% error rate, you can expect to have errors in any case, but the opportunities for error increase at an increasing rate as the plan becomes more complex. Worse yet, you can expect errors to be caught in high level reviews, which may be the only time anyone will look at a really complex plan. (This will, however, give other attendees relief from their own issues, as they can direct everyone’s attention to your mistakes and keep management’s attention off of their issues – hopefully they will show you some gratitude.) The best way to reduce the error rate is by periodically reviewing the plan with stakeholders.

One of the most common pitfalls in planning is when management demands the addition of too much detail. All too often I see higher-level managers with too little understanding of the practicalities of project management driving more and more detail into a plan in an effort to establish better control over the project. Unfortunately, this often results in a plan with more detail than can possibly be absorbed, managed, or kept up to date, and the difficulty of reading the plan can drive people away from using it. An important point to make as you try to keep your plan manageable is that, if people are so put off by the amount of detail that they stop using the plan, the manager’s control is effectively reduced rather than enhanced. When requests come in to add more detail, the planner must screen the request, asking, for example, if the requested detail is useful to most of the plan’s stakeholders, or only to a single functional area. The planner must argue against inclusion in the latter case, or wind up with a badly overstuffed plan. Tasks of interest only to a single function should be included in a subordinate plan, not in the master plan.

Timothy Prosser – Ann Arbor, MI

Timothy spent the past ten years planning vehicle development programs and tracking parts at a major auto manufacturer in the Detroit area, employed by Integrated Management Systems, Inc. of Ann Arbor, MI (www.imsi-pm.com).

Past experience, in reverse order, includes 3 years writing and supervising technical documentation at a major automotive supplier, 7.5 years engineering computer printers for Unisys Corporation, 3 years of technical work in the image processing and automatic inspection industry, 5 years of network and peripheral service work for ADP, Inc., and 3 years selling wholesale electronic parts.

Education includes an MBA from The University of Michigan (1991), a BS in Geography from Eastern Michigan University (1974), and *countless* training classes by various employers. Timothy has also taught many seminars on project management and various tools involved in the work.

Timothy is a lifetime musician (www.mandolinmaniac.com, www.martianentropyband.com), a 30-year amateur radio operator, and writes a number of blogs including www.timprosserfuturing.wordpress.com.

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