How do you put a project plan together and keep your head when you are asked to plan impossible timescales? You are not alone, in fact, many of us are asked to achieve miracles every day!
Let’s take a scenario, it’s a Thursday afternoon, you’ve been called into the big boss’ office with no notice. Your boss starts explaining a new ‘thing’ that they wish to launch to win to make the most of a new commercial opportunity. Maybe it’s a new software platform, maybe it’s a new type of electronic widget (you can imagine what you do for a living here to help your imagination).
Then comes the news you expected, your boss wants this whole thing to be ready to go in 6 months! Yes, you heard it, you are now expected to create a project plan for impossible timescales! Your brain is racing, knowing the last project like this took 18 months and you are still firefighting daily issues with the product or service that was launched.
So, what do you do? Follow these steps whilst taking deep breaths and you will be amazed at the results.
Establishing your stakeholder expectations before creating a project plan
So, when you are being asked to create a project plan for impossible timescales, following this path, and make detailed notes:
Ask your boss for an overview of WHAT needs to be delivered.
Make sure you understand WHY the business wants to do this (so important)
Find out WHERE they intend for this to be done
Ask HOW they think you are going to deliver it
Clarify WHO is going to be available for the project,
Confirm WHEN they want it (6 months in this case)
Finally, and importantly ask HOW MUCH they think it’s all going to cost, (this is where they give you their guesstimated budget).
So what are we doing here? You are gauging your stakeholders expectations, getting the picture in their head onto paper. This stage is absolutely essential in defining the overall expectations. If your boss tells you she thinks it should cost £0.5m, you have a ball park of what to aim for in planning. You’ll know that going back with a £10m project budget won’t fly, so if you are struggling to achieve the scope (the WHAT) for £0.5m then you can have a far more constructive conversation with her when you go back.
Creating a plan with impossible timescales
The next stage is now the crucial building stage. You need to now establish all the same answers to the questions above to see if it is going to fly. If you go away and make a project plan that mimics what they asked for without an understanding HOW you are going to actually deliver it, you will likely fail. If you don’t answer the many many unanswered questions of WHAT you are going to have to do, you are walking down the classic project management failure. These are the same failures that blight corporations everyday, but now you can be different!
Maybe you feel you have no choice, your boss doesn’t care about reality, just that he or she has a Gantt chart and project plan document that echoes their wishes to present to some higher stakeholder.
But what real value does this have to anyone? A scenario can be that you kick off the project and spend 2 months working with the stakeholders trying to figure out exactly what they want. You gradually realize this is an 18 month project at 5 x the cost of their budget, and now you are seen as the project manager who is failing the company. The project plan with impossible timescales is now running way behind schedule, over budget, and failing. It was you presented the original plans, not your boss, so who is going to get the blame?
The 7Q Approach – a NEW way to project plan
You write down your understanding of WHY you are undertaking this project.
Then, specify yours and your teams understanding of WHAT they need to deliver, writing down all assumptions, caveats, dependencies, etc.
You specify WHERE the work is going to be done and delivered (maybe multiple locations).
You breakdown HOW you are going to do it (break down the big chunks of works into smaller pieces).
Then you assume WHO is going to do it, (staff, subcontractors, etc).
From here you can figure out a timescale, or WHEN it can all be done.
Then sum it all up into a project budget (HOW MUCH).
So, let’s go back and take a different path. Once you have gauged your stakeholders estimates for WHAT, WHEN & HOW MUCH (scope, cost and time), now you can go away and have a real crack at the 7Q approach (7 questions of a project plan).
This can be done in an afternoon or over a couple of days, run a couple of iterations, from the HOW MUCH you go back to WHY, WHAT, WHERE, HOW, WHO, WHEN & HOW MUCH again, making changes as you see them.
THEN you can go back to your stakeholders with some genuine estimates, with details, assumptions, possibilities, and so much more.
So, let’s say your stakeholders don’t like the new WHEN (scope) and HOW MUCH (schedule)! What can you do? If your WHEN and HOW MUCH are out of alignment, you MUST change WHAT you are doing, HOW you are doing it, or WHO is doing it. That’s right, the key steps to meeting impossible timescales is to ‘De-Scope’, find and easier path, or find cheaper resource. De-scoping is effectively offloading work. You can always persuade your boss that the other work can be done at a ‘later stage’. You can even build a roadmap showing the future phases after the initial project has been successful.
Getting the WHAT (scope) down to an absolute minimum is the GOLD to realising impossible timescales. Work out the bare essentials, the absolute minimum that you could get away with delivering whilst keeping people happy.
An impossible timescale example!
You talk to a builder and say: “I want a 4 bed house in 4 months for $40k.” The builder may say, “for $40k you can have a 1 bed chalet, not a 4 bed, and I can do that in 3 months.” You say, “ok, how much for a 3 bed?” “A 3 bed will be $140k and take 6 months.” What is happening here? You are iterating, you have your wishes, the builder gives you what can be done, so why do corporations not follow this basic approach, often sticking stubbornly to the original ask.
Its normally because the project manager is ignored by the corporate boss’, who in this example will tell the top brass that you will be delivering the 4 bed for $40k in 6 months, and they’ve forced some poor project manager into showing in documents what is effectively a delusion.
So, you keep negotiating with your stakeholders, going back and forth to come up with a project plan that is achievable and minimise scope (WHAT) as much as possible, then, and only then, can you deliver to an impossible timescale.
If you are running or thinking about running a project, and you need a project plan, one of the fundamental questions to answer is normally: HOW MUCH will this project cost?
This means different things to different people. If all the people who work on the project don’t have their hours counted (which you really should by the way), then you may need to just cost up spend outside your business (for example materials, sub-contractors, subscriptions, etc). If you are including hours of the staff worked, and using a day rate to cost this up, you’ll need an estimation of how much effort the project will take in order to create a project budget.
So, deciding from the above which path to take, you can set about building a project plan, and then you can cost it up.
Cost can be thought of as either price per day or week for time taken, plus fixed costs (e.g. if the design agency quote a fixed price for a website, or quote a price per day that they spend, you may have very different outcomes). A new laptop will have a fixed cost, a subscription to Adobe Photoshop will be dependent on how long you use it for.
Producing a cost estimate
In order to produce a cost estimate, you need to summarise the following (representing 7Q – the seven questions to a project plan in this specific order):
WHY are you doing this project – having a focus on this helps decide what needs doing and what is a nice to have for costing purposes
WHAT is it that needs to be achieved (this is the project scope)
WHERE is all this going to be done (location of preparation and delivery can be different places, can affect costs)
HOW are we going to achieve it (this is essentially the plan of work broken down into smaller sections).
WHO is going to do it – different people or companies have different prices. You’ll need to consider availability of people or companies needed.
WHEN is it going to be done? You may think this is the date that your client or boss is asking for, but it is important to work through WHAT, WHERE, HOW & WHO to be able to calculate WHEN (TIME), and see if your answer aligns with the wish list from your boss or client
HOW MUCH (COST) can really only be estimated when the above are known.
Let me be totally frank here (or even Fred), most project planning and execution failures come down to one of three things:
You don’t deliver WHAT is required
You don’t deliver WHEN it is required
You don’t deliver the WHAT for HOW MUCH it was meant to cost
What could be going wrong
I have worked and mentored many many project and programme managers on often extremely technical and complex items with many high-risk unknowns and potential hiccups but let me make it simple.
If you produce a plan that contains the following:
WHAT we need to do (Scope)
WHEN we need to do it (time scales)
HOW MUCH it will cost (budget)
You are missing key fundamental questions that need answers.
For example: I am going to:
WHAT: Build a rocket
WHEN: Next week
HOW MUCH: Budget $1000
What value does this have to anyone? Can it be done? Will it fail? Many project managers feed their clients or boss’ the answers that they’ve been given. Your job as a project manager is to take these inputs, work out the specification for the rocket, then proceed along the 7Q.
For example, do you understand WHY you need a rocket? If it is to go on display in a museum, this is very different from a manned mission to Mars!
When you understand WHY you are undertaking the project, you can provide greater detail to WHAT, work out WHERE you will design and build it (for cost planning), then work out HOW you will deliver the project. You need this to then decide WHO is needed for the project, this will have great cost implications. One person may earn 3 x another worker, so going for the highest paid worker may impact your project spend unnecessarily.
Assuming you have all these nailed, you can calculate WHEN or how long it will take. Remember, you can’t say how long something will take without knowing these, otherwise its a pure guess, not a plan.
Now, you have 6 of the 7 questions captured, you are ready to start costing. Don’t start costing before you have estimated or planned the first 6!!
You are now in a position to simply add all the items up with a cost against each item, and hey presto you have a budget or HOW MUCH the project will cost.
You can now compare your costs with the client or boss’ request, and see if it lines up with peoples expectations, or see if they are miles apart.
Next, you iterate, i.e. Go round the loop of 7Q or the seven questions a couple more times to refine your previous estimates.
Revisit the WHY – challenge all of the assumptions you’ve been given, maybe the WHY for the rocket turns out to be to launch a new GPS satellite, that changes the whole project plan!
So, you can have a project cost estimate by answering seven questions!!
Want to learn some more about Fred? Check out his LinkedIn here!
If you ask someone if they have a plan for their work, you’ll get vast array of different answers from ‘not at all’ to ‘yes, and I’ve planned my whole life out’.
So, do you need a plan? Why do you need one? What sort of plans should you make? How do you make a plan? How long should you spend on it?
I’ve led programme and project managers that hated and dodged project planning despite it being a key aspect of their role. On the other extreme I once worked alongside a project manager that literally scheduled her whole life to an extreme that made me shudder, with holidays mapped out for the next 50 years, and a weekly life plan that included what time of day her and family would get up to when she would have sex with her husband (including day of week and hour of day, yep, it was not the best idea to detail these in work time and keep them on the public work drive!).
What makes that story even more poignant is that this project manager ran off with one of her clients about 12 months later, making all that work a total waste of time (although I imagine she was getting more of what she wanted!).
I’ve trained many project managers in planning, and I’ve worked with countless people who find themselves needing to make a plan with very little background in it, and from all the years of doing it myself, mentoring people who are planning, and seeing the execution and results of said planning, let me share a few thoughts with you about it.
Do you need a plan?
If you need to achieve something, and you don’t have a project plan, how on earth can you know whether you will achieve the desired outcome, and when you get there will it be worth it?
Think about it like this, you see programmes on TV like ‘Grand Designs’ and you see them over and over again finding folks that have a budget and no idea how much it is all actually going to cost, they don’t have a PLAN. They go massively overbudget, they let their emotions run them, they often lose money.
What are the benefits of planning?
Having written details for nearly all situations that involve any level of complexity are critical to evaluating the PATH to your destination, review the risks involved, the likelihood of success, the costs and time durations involved, you can then EVALUATE and decide which path to take.
Here’s a big headache for you: your plan is only useful on the day you write it. The next day, everything’s probably going to change.
That’s right folks, this process isn’t a one-time event, a plan MUST be seen as a living and evolving snapshot of the route to the finish line. If you get blown off course you need to replan to get back on track to your destination.
So, some folks need detail to such a degree it cripples them, it becomes a death by plan for anyone that goes near it. Other people literally rock in every day and just do stuff that seems about right.
Your job is to plan at the right level or relevance, and the easiest way to do this is in chunks of time.
How do you make one?
Now, let’s say you have a project that is going to take 1 year, I’d immediately recommend creating a high-level summary plan with estimates for the main chunks over that year, and how they depend on each other.
Once you have a high-level scope, you can take the chunks that fall in the next 3 months and go into more detail. If after going into more detail you find you had to double all your original estimates, you can apply this to the whole project.
Without going into specifics, there is great value in having a near term focus and clear breakdown of what is needed, whilst allowing items further in the future to be more and more hazy.
Trust me when I say there is no point planning out a chunk of work in minute detail that is 12 months away of more because it will have completely changed by the time you get there, and your effort is wasted.
People that get too lost in planning and ‘not doing’ are procrastinators, they are avoiding the real-life execution of the project. People that get lost in execution without planning are avoiding having a reality check on what they are doing.
What should you plan?
Whilst there are many basic things in life that should be straight forward for you (like going to the toilet), having a plan can literally CHANGE your life, your work, your achievements, everything.
I work to the following:
10-year wish list
3-year horizon (what I would like it to look like)
A 1-year business plan
A quarter breakdown of objectives and goals I wish to achieve
And then I run a weekly plan (the plan of the week is a PLOW) to give me direction.
As I’m a human I often fall into lapses on this and stop following my own rules, and do you know what happens, I don’t achieve very much. When I have focussed plans to guide me, I achieve a lot more.
A plan should be proportionate to the ‘doing’. The old ‘Plan, Do, Review’ saying is very valuable here. It is actually the same as the techy / agile saying for ‘design, build test, repeat’.
Keep it simple, keep it short, communicate it and share it with the folks that you need support from in the plan, and then get on with the ‘doing’.
You can then review your progress, see how effective it’s been, learn about your own estimations vs what actually happened, then feed all this knowledge into the next project.
Should you plan?
Absolutely yes, you should have a plan for your upcoming week with your key desired outcomes listed.
Do you ever NOT need a plan?
Not really, not unless what you are doing is so ingrained in you or so predictably simple that it is self-explanatory.
So folks, start simple and grow, if you don’t do it at all, start with very short plans and grow from there. If you are one of those ‘death by plan’ types, wind it right back to the next few weeks only, and DO something.
To sign off, I’m going to say this, you can MASSIVELY change your life, if you make a 1 year AND a weekly plan of what you wish to achieve (not a task list – that’s another BLOG), and look at your plans briefly every day, I dare anyone to come back to me and say you haven’t exceeded your own dreams, and you are smashing it after 1 year.
Want to learn some more about Fred? Check out his LinkedIn here!