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Off the Beaten Path

Any project manager that has managed (or worked on) even a single project knows that every project will veer off of the planned route in some way. For many projects, this initial deviation is the start of a cascading effect of chaos and reactive decisions that results in delays, dropped scope or reduced quality. Rather than fight it, we should be preparing ourselves to deal with the inevitable unplanned events as best as possible.

While some might argue that these shifts from the plan on any project are enough reason to abandon traditional project planning altogether, that we need to be agile, in truth it is this very planning, if we understand its true utility, that makes us most agile of all.

First off, we need a reasonable plan, which means that the participants have been involved in developing an understanding of how they intend to work together to solve the problem at hand. This is a far cry from someone dropping a standard WBS into Project and cramming numbers into the tasks so that the overall schedule fits the constraint someone promised. That approach is management suicide.

Once we have that reasonable plan, if we are watching things carefully, we are best equipped to know at the soonest possible moment that we are deviating from that plan. Rather than being disappointed, though, we need to recognize that our system is working and actually be please that we have that visibility. This gives us the greatest possible flexibility or making adjustments so that we can still achieve our overall goals.

Note that this critical step is dependent on one factor, regardless of whether we are working a traditional project network or an agile project. Every team member needs to be completely frank about their progress, and the moment there is a chance that their task will not go as planned, the team needs to be called into action. We wouldn't wait until we were up to our armpits in quicksand before we called for help, but many of us seem to think that if we are falling behind, we need to try to catch up on our own. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is far more of an imposition to the team to not let them know that something is amiss as soon as possible.

With a plan in place and the team working together to deal with issues, we can kick into action. For many issues, it may be sufficient to not take action at all, or to merely keep an eye on the problem. For others, we will need to do something, before that 'do something' means we need to ask for more time or money from the client.

Done well, a plan provides the right backdrop for helping the team make creative decisions that can keep the project moving forward to meet original expectations of budget, scope, time and quality. This is not the same as 'on track', as our goal is not to follow a deterministic path to completion, but to get to a successful completion as we had previously defined. We did define what success would look like, didn't we?

If we can wean ourselves from the expectation that we will follow our planned path to completion, then we have a great tool at our disposal. Our initial view of the network of activities that we had put together, while it showed one possible view of how we would interact to get things done, most probably contained a number of assumptions that could be optimized. Just as a first design for a product is not necessarily the best, just as solution ideas in the analysis stage are one way we could solve the problem, our project network likely has plenty of potential optimization within it.

For many schedules, we can usually optimize our first cut at the relationships to shave 25% to 50% off of the scheduled duration. We can break dependencies between activities, sometimes simply working them in parallel, sometimes at a cost of adding some sort of bridging task to enable that parallel work. We can add resources to some of the tasks, being careful to recognize the potential overhead that we need to add to make this work. We could cut some scope and still maximize value produced or even dumb down the quality of some features if we have a handle on our original expectations in these areas.

All this flexibility, though, is only available to us if we have an original plan on which to base our decisions. Only then do we even know that we have adjustments we need to make, that we are off the beaten path to begin with.