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So far Russell Whitworth has created 22 blog entries.

The Fourth Essential: Plan

I was once a team leader in a large project. At that time I wasn’t yet a project manager, but the project did indeed have someone with that title. I expected him to ask to see my plan, because that’s what project managers do, isn’t it?

His answer surprised me. “I’m not interested in your plan. But I’d like to help you produce one.”

I asked him what tools he would like me to use – again, isn’t that what project managers are supposed to do for a living? “I don’t care. Just invite me to your team meeting and we’ll do some planning.”

What happened next was a team workshop, in which we spent a lot of time coming up with a messy diagram on a whiteboard. It had activities, deliverables and arrows, and some dates. The PM challenged us to define the objectives, and constantly asked about dependencies. He didn’t do any “planning” that I could see – he just asked us tough questions.

At the end of the meeting we had a rather ugly diagram, but it was one that we were all happy with. I asked whether he would be turning it into an MS Project plan. “No, but you can if you want. As far as I’m concerned you’ve done the planning. You now have a high-quality plan that your team has bought into. As I said before I really don’t care how you document it.”

I learnt a lot from that PM – in fact, he became a role model for me. His point, of course, is that the planning process itself is what matters, and it matters far more than the plan. It matters because:

  • The team does the planning. Not the project manager.
  • The team thinks through the issues, and comes up with their own solutions.
  • The team now owns the plan, and are committed to delivering against it.

I wouldn’t personally go quite to the extreme of not caring about the subsequent plan. It is an important baseline – something to track against – and it is an essential communications tool.

When I look at a project plan, the things that interest me are:

  • Does it demonstrate how the project delivers against the project scope – is there a clear linkage?
  • Are the dependencies properly shown?
  • Is it likely to be understood by the intended audience (including team members and senior stakeholders)?
  • Is it up-to-date?

I also like to ask how the plan was produced, and how it is maintained. To what degree are the team involved?

The form of the plan doesn’t matter. It can be MS Project, Powerpoint, Excel, or a squiggly diagram on a whiteboard. Just as long as the team regards it as being their plan.

Post script

Long after writing this article I came across an excellent quote which says it all far more succinctly:

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

By | 2015-08-19T10:54:45+00:00 April 2nd, 2013|Project Management, Seven Essentials|Comments Off on The Fourth Essential: Plan

Beethoven liked to go for a walk

Although I’m a strong advocate of following a project management process, this does not mean that there is no room for creativity in projects. Far from it. No two projects are the same, and because the human element is always a major factor, the project manager has to be versatile, adaptable and creative.

The Seven Essentials provides a framework, within which the PM can apply their creative skills. But project management is not a factory process.

Last week’s Horizon on BBC (available on iPlayer in the UK at the time of writing) looked at the creative process, and in particular the “aha!” or “eureka!” lightbulb moment. This is where the solution to a problem suddenly comes to mind, seemingly from nowhere. Of course, it doesn’t really come from nowhere; there are unconscious processes at work within the brain that are able to produce these remarkable results. Also, there are behaviours that can be adopted that increase the chances of lightning striking.

It got me thinking about how this applies to project managers. Certainly the ability to come up with creative solutions to a project challenge must be a strength, so what behaviours do we need to adopt?

The key, it seems, is to give the brain the bandwidth to carry out some background processing. It works best if the mind is somewhat active – not totally relaxed – but not too  busy either.

When I was doing A-levels, my sixth form tutor advised doing an hour or so of revision, and then to go for a walk and not really think about anything. Let it sink in. And then back to the revision. It worked for me, and to this day I find that going for a relaxed walk really helps my mental processes. The research described on Horizon shows that there is some science behind this.

For project managers, apart from going for a walk, here are some hints:

  • Don’t spend too much time stuck at your desk. Interact with people, face-to-face, as much as possible.
  • Don’t skip lunch – and don’t lunch alone. Apart from the social contact, those casual lunchtime conversations might give your mind the space to get on with some background processing.
  • Vary your tasks throughout the day. If you are more creative during the morning, as many of us are, then don’t squander that time on your email backlog. Turn off Outlook, and do something more interesting.
  • Spend non-work time with the team. Hold social events. Relax together. If you’re working away from home, hotel bar time sometimes generates useful ideas.

I try to write these blogs on a weekly basis, and almost always I start by going for a walk. Next comes a mind map, and then I write.

Beethoven didn’t actually write a blog, but according to Horizon whenever he was a bit stuck creatively, he went for a walk.

By | 2015-08-19T10:54:45+00:00 March 22nd, 2013|Project Management|Comments Off on Beethoven liked to go for a walk