3 Where do I start?
3.1 Barriers to planning
The planning stage of a project usually takes place before the activities start, but not always. In any case, planning always continues during the implementation of a project because there is always a need to change some aspects and to revise plans.
Consider this story told by a senior line manager who had been asked to help Pat, a junior manager leading a small team on a project that was intended to produce a number of prototype packaging options. Pat was an experienced designer but had very little experience in managing projects and had run into problems in her new role as project manager. Time was short and the team had started to work enthusiastically, but something had gone wrong. They were two months into the project but were not producing anything – there was no sign of measurable progress.
‘Pat had a number of designs in draft form, as did other members of the team, but nothing had been completed. My task was to review the project and help Pat to get it back on track. I asked for the project plan – which was produced rather hesitantly. “I got stuck”, Pat explained. “I tried to follow the company guidelines, but I couldn't understand why we needed to go through all of those stages and hold lots of meetings – we all know how to design this sort of thing”.
‘However, the team had all had different ideas about how to approach the project and had been working separately, trying out a lot of different ideas that Pat had realised were not really addressing the requirements of the project. Some of the team thought that this was a good opportunity to develop some creative ideas and wanted to try out different ways of doing things. Pat felt that there was no time to waste in planning and filling in paperwork, just to conform with the company procedures, when the available time could be spent producing the prototypes. However, most of Pat's time was spent in trying to keep the team members working on practical ideas and in fending off inquiries about progress and so little progress had been made. The team felt as though they had been working very hard and were being unfairly criticised.
‘We sorted the problem out in two days. I worked through the planning document with Pat, and explained that it was the process, not the paperwork, which was important. We involved the team in planning so that they understood what was needed from each of them. Developing a plan helped the team to bring their ideas together, to agree on who would do each task and to focus on the outcomes that were required. Once Pat had made a plan that the team could all believe in, this quickly got the project back under control, and it was completed successfully’.
Note down a list of the barriers that Pat encountered in planning the project.
How could each of these barriers have been overcome earlier?
We identified the barriers listed below and suggest ways in which they could have been overcome.
Pat had tried to make a plan but had found the instructions in the manual too complicated to follow. A manual of procedures was provided – but this can be bewildering for a person who does not understand why the procedures should be followed, particularly if the procedures seem to be about producing paperwork rather than carrying out the work of the project. Luckily, the first review date had been set early enough for the situation to be recovered.
None of the team seemed to appreciate why a plan was useful. If they had been involved in discussing the project and how they could complete it they would have realised that they needed to decide who would carry out each task and in what order these needed to be done. Involvement in planning usually also increases motivation to complete the plan.
All the team members were feeling pressure to make progress as time was short. However, without a plan it was not clear to Pat which tasks each team member needed to do or in what order these should be done. Activity without such a plan used up energy but was frustrating because little progress with the project was achieved. A plan with targets would have helped everyone to carry out tasks that contributed to progressing the project.
The problem was not noticed by senior managers until the first review date, which was rather late and could have been embarrassing for Pat. In this case it was not too late for corrective action to be taken to rescue the project. As this was Pat's first project it would have been helpful for a more experienced manager to offer coaching through all of the stages of managing the project.
Pat's work seems to have been unsupervised and it is possible that the culture of the organisation made it difficult to ask for support. However, if the plan had been agreed with the project sponsor, there would already have been some discussion about what should be reported and when reports should be made. This would have helped to focus on whether Pat needed support before the first review date.