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We Make the Plan, To Change the Plan

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” ― Albert Einstein

Project Planning

It is often a confusing concept that so much of one’s project planning is designed so that every project plan may be changed. That the more prepared we are, the more able we are to change what we have prepared. What makes a great project manager is both his or her ability to foresee how things will play out and, perhaps even more crucially, his or her understanding of how to manage the factors they simply cannot predict.

Flexibility, not rigidity, is frequently the key to whether a project plan succeeds or fails- whether a project has a wonderful life and is successfully completed, or risks death along the way. Every project I have ever managed has its stringent “musts”. “We must reach completion by these dates”, “we must not spend more than this amount in that area,” “We must use these vendors, those people,” and so on. To begin, it is important to understand what are TRULY the “musts”. Meaning, what are the factors that, if removed, the project ceases? Versus, what are the “strong preferences” that will not kill the project if removed? Furthermore, what are the “preferences” and the pieces that can be free to move and evolve along with a project? And, what are the factors we can manage entirely with the freedom to do what is best for the overall project (which may mean sacrificing some trees for the good of the overall forest)?

Often the categories can get confused; you may think about a factor as an absolute “must.” However, upon further inspectionyou discover it is a “strong preference” and, should it not prove possible, the project will indeed go on. With a careful understanding of what are the pillars holding up the roof of your project, and what aren’t, you can begin to make a project plan designed to adapt to the ever evolving needs of any project. However, this understanding is simply the beginning of your work. Be ready: like all factors, the answers to these questions may change.

After the horrific 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, it became painfully apparent that buildings constructed rigidly would crumble in an earthquake. Meanwhile, a building that is able to move with such disruption will have a strong chance at survival. Your project plan must allow for such fluidity.

Some may initially see this as an argument against careful and detailed project planning. After-all, “Didn’t he just say the project plan is going to change anyway? So, why bother project planning at all?” Let me refute that immediately.I, like any experienced project manager, can promise you that the more detailed work you have done in your project planning, the betteryour ability to adapt down the line. It is because our project plan is well thought out, and because it accounts for all the variables we could foresee, that we are well armed to handle the variables no one could possibly foresee.

Much of our detailed project planning will work exactly as we planned it and that should be celebrated. Nevertheless, when we must adapt the project plan, we will be well suited to do so thanks to the careful preparation, research, and detailed understanding put into our initial fluid design. It is because we know the rationale that went into the initial well-thought out project plan that we are exceptionally well informed as to where it makes sense to change the project plan.

Project planning with adaptation in mind begs the question,“where can I allow for such flexibility when the ‘musts’ are not clear?” Whether one is trying to incorporate flexibility into one’s budget, schedule, or over-all management style, this requires expertise and experience. If you are an expert in a field, you know in what areas you are able to comfortably maneuver. In other words, you know where your project plan is designed for unpredictable eventualities and where there is less wiggle room.

Most projects have numerous factors, some of which we are absolute experts in and deeply understand how we can adapt the project plan; and others, we may not come to the project understanding so deeply. Here is where it gets tough for many of us: embracing the sometimes humbling need to admit what you do not know.

Psychologist Noel Burch in the 1970s developed the, “Four Stages of Competence” or the, “Conscious Competence” learning model. They are:

1. Unconscious incompetence

2. Conscious incompetence

3. Conscious competence

4. Unconscious competence

Unconscious incompetence

It is the first stage, “Unconscious incompetence” that is most dangerous for a project manager. This means that not only does an individual not understand something, they do not recognize the deficit. How can one make or manage a project plan when one does not truly understand part of what one is managing – and when one doesn’t even begin to appreciate one’s own incompetence?

While many of us are experts in our respective fields, complex projects frequently have many different parts, and it is not unusual that one or more of these parts are simply new to us. We have yet to truly appreciate the particular demands relevant to a given piece of a project and how that piece may impact the overall puzzle. This is why we must always question our own competence, particularly when dealing with anything remotely new to us. We need to talk to those with more expertise and begin to determine if we may lack sufficient expertise in a particular area. By doing so, we open the door to making great progress and discovering that you are now in the second category: Conscious Incompetence.

Conscious incompetence

While your ego may be reluctant to admit you belong in this category (Conscious Incompetence), this is a great place to be (and certainly far less dangerous than the above mentioned “Unconscious incompetence” stage). Again, we are all experts in our fields but no one is an expert in every field. If you can recognize there is a particular part of a project in which you do not possess much expertise, you can now recognize the deficit and begin addressing it. This will allow you to gather the necessary information to make a well-informed project plan. You can talk to experts both inside and outside your project and gain the knowledge you need to effectively create and manage the project. Furthermore, you can begin to develop a project plan that incorporates the fluid needs of all the factors of your project.

Conscious competence

If you find yourself in the third category of “Conscious Competence,” then congratulations are in order.  This means you are an expert; although, it still requires conscious effort for you to break down and understand a problem. Afterall, this is the bread-and-butter for many of us. The effort of breaking down a project to truly understand it is key to making sure we have thought through and addressed all the foreseeable issues and allowed room for the unforeseeable.

Unconscious competence

“Unconscious Competence,” as you have likely figured out, is the highest level of understanding. A skill has become second nature and you can now perform it with minimal effort. There are major pieces of the puzzle that when presented to me in a project, I can quickly tell project partners “You have not accounted for these likely factors.” I can inherently recognize where someone is building padding into their budget or schedule projections (which is not necessarily a bad thing). For that matter, I can also tell when they are not giving themselves enough slack – or perhaps they do not truly grasp the other factors within a project that will affect their work-flow. In these cases, I am well positioned to advise and better develop a project plan along with my project partners.

Recognizing both your expertise and where you must gain further expertise is imperative to making and managing an effective project plan that will be able to evolve and insure your project’s success. In the end, reaching our destination happily and successfully is more important than sticking to the route we first drew on our maps.