Hal Macomber writes of the role of planning and the emergence of the future. Hal calls attention to a Tim Russert interview in which Tony Snow states that the plans for Iraq could not have lasted past the first battle.
In a side bar Hal states
Anticipating the future is the job of forecasters not project managers. Good project managers know they can't predict the future.
First let me state my bias. As a combat veteran and with a small bit of experience planning the daily activities of our mission - close air support of the 101st Airborne, I Corp, RVN, 1969-1970 - the notion that no plan survives contact with the enemy is an urban legend. Planning in the presence of uncertainty is a Critical Success Factor for any military as well as project management process.
There is a fundamental difference between a Plan and the execution of that Plan. Certainly emerging events alter the execution of the plan. A simple example on the battle field, then back to project management.
Plan: Support the extraction of two platoons from 2d Battalion, 501th Infantry from the top of Firebase RipCord. (This was the orgnization at Bastogne Belgium Dec 1944, and the subject of A Band of Brothers, they have a long history of hanging tough) Having been placed there several weeks prior they are now in danger of being overrun (an all too common scenario). Flight patterns are defined, ordinance selected, crews at the ready, top cover air support arranged (B52's for the worst case scenario), ZSU-23 suppression arranged through the USAF, ground track paths marked for a Plan C, etc. etc. Plans briefed, aircraft fueled, armed, and ready on the field. 0400 proceed to suit up and fly to the fuel dump to top off before rendezvous at the check point in the sky 100 miles West of Hue.
This is the Plan of the Day. On the way to the IP (Initiation Point), something changes. Weather, addition AAA discovered, landing zone cluttered with a damaged Medivac from the previous night's operations, dozens of other "realities." But the PLAN remains intact, get the infantry off the top of the hill, leave the artillery behind (we'll come back later for that), but get the infantry back to Phu Bai. That's the plan. Fly the plan.
Three mile final, incoming mortars are pounding the LZ. Executing the Plan now requires some adjustments.
Close air support needed to suppress the mortar fire. F-4's at the ready (fast movers) call for coordinates of the source of fire. Offset bombing from the LZ with the map coordinates provided by the forward air controller driving around in an O-2 looking for muzzle flashes. Coordinates relayed to the RIO in the F4 and the mortars stop. Back to Plan A after a 20 minute hold.
You get the point - the PLAN is the strategy for extracting the men of the 506'th from the top of a mountain. The Schedule is the sequence of activities needs to cause the Plan to come true - home and dry.
Applying Planning to Project Management
The first thing to establish is the differences between planning and scheduling.
- Planning is the strategy for completing the project on-time, on-budget, on-specification. Cost (C), Schedule (S), and Technical Performance (P) are the three independent variables of a project when we're speaking about performance management and planning
- Scheduling is the delivery processes the implement the Plan. The schedule of work results in accomplishments which in turn result in some capability - be it business or military.
Hal talks about...
Planning narrowing the possibilities. This is a self inflicted narrowing. Planning need not narrow the possibilities. It can in fact does in many projects I've been on - expand the possibilities. These are called Trade Studies in the aerospace business. The entire Phase I of Crew Exploration Vehicle (now named Orion) was Trade Studies ($36M worth of Trade Studies).
Planning is a conversion. But to suggest planning is not a valid process because the participants responsible for delivery were not in the initial conversation is a little weak. Bad planning excludes those on the delivering side from the conversation. Good planning involves those accountable for executing the plan.
Planning can lead to a network of promises. Certainly in the IMP/IMS (Integrated Master Plan / Integrated Master Schedule) approach to Program Management, the Significant Accomplishments, their Accomplishment Criteria and the resulting Program Events are assessment points where the promises can be assessed for maturity.
Anticipating the Future?
Hal suggests anticipating the future is the job of forecasters not project managers. And that good project managers know they can't predict the future. Hal should look at the current issue of PMI's PM Network. The Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site was the Project of the Year in 2006. As a participant in the project, we in IT had to predict the future all the time.
- What will be the demand on IT services at a specific point in the closure project?
- What will be our ability to meet that demand given on unknown and possibly unknowable budget process?
- What is the 80% confidence level completion date of the Wireless Umbrella installation with secure VoIP so we can plan the demolition and decommissioning of building 777?
- What will we find behind a wall in terms of contaminated telecommunications equipment that needs to be packaged and sent to Utah? What are the upper and lower bounds of the effort, cost and environmental risk and how much budget, skill, and time will be needed to assure a 80% confidence level of completing the removal of this equipment by a fixed date?
These are forecasting questions and answers - asked and answered by Project Managers. That's what Project Managers do...
They build plans that describe the strategy for fulfilling the technical performance measures (TPM) within the constraints of the time and budget.
In the end Hal suggests the very best Project Managers continuously re-plan there projects with the people who are performing the work. If the term Plan is replaced with Schedule, this sounds about right. The continuous re-scheduling may take place. But the Plan would be considered a poor Plan if it were continuously being changed.
Planning is Strategy Making
Where to Look Further
This approach to project management is not PMI's approach. Which is why you don't see many references to PMI documents in the Defense and Federal agency world - DoD rewrote PMBOK for a reason.
But one good place to start is the work of Christoph Loch, Michael Pich and Arnoud De Meyer of INSEAD. They have thought through the differences between Planning and Scheduling and the uncertainties related with both. The seminal paper is:
"On Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Complexity in Project Management," Management Science, INFORMS, Volume 48, Number 2, August 2002, pp. 1008-1023.
This paper and the previous and follow on work has four categories of project (programmatic risk)
- Foreseen risk
- Unforeseen risk
It may be that Hal is speaking of Unforeseen and Chaos disruptions to the Plan. But dealing with Variation and Foreseen disruptions are tractable planning and scheduling activities are any project management organization. Unforeseen disruptions need a Plan-B and Chaos requires flexible approaches and constant learning from feedback - it needs a Strategy to deal with Chaos.
Final Comment on Battle Plans
Tony Snow's comment comes from a Press Secretary for a president that has never been in combat. The "plans" quote - "Plans are nothing; planning is everything," is actually a mis-quote. The quote is a reference to a 19th century German general Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891) who said "no plan survives contact with the enemy."
But this is a 19th view of the world. We know better the sources of uncertainty (Loch's 4 above), how to make decisions in the presence of this uncertainty, and how to model both the source and outcomes of this uncertainty - Real Options and Monte Carlo simulation.
It's not perfect, in fact it's not even successful in many cases - but it is the role of the Project Manager.