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Precision Planning for Powerful Projects

Reflecting on a variety of technology, content, and business projects over the years, I’m convinced that the difference between good project management and poor (and even sometimes failing) project management lies in the quality of the planning. A lot of times, project teams give lip service to a planning phase, or worse, they skip planning all together. It’s understandable — there is a lot of pressure to start coding, writing, and building. The problem with succumbing to this pressure is that the project inevitably falls apart and then you have a mess to clean up. Often, that clean-up requires — you guessed it — planning. But now, the team has to plan their way out of problems, wasting resources in the process. Instead, they could have planned their way to success with minimal waste.

In an okay project, planning might include things like a scope statement, maybe some high-level documentation — just enough to defend the delivery teams from the business when things start falling apart. But they still fall apart, leading to conflict and angry feelings between the customer and delivery partner.

What is lacking is the mutual planning and sequencing of activities from the get-go. At swattage, we call this “Precision Planning.” It’s more than just making a list of stuff to deliver. It’s forming a strong team and then mutually agreeing on what to do, the order in which to do it, and who’s doing what. It’s identifying a clear outcome and then tying a thread from the starting point all the way through to delivery and deployment, from the most basic problem statement through successful execution.

This might sound like a lot of unnecessarily wasted time, especially when we could just be “working on stuff.” But consider this experience:

Years ago, I participated in a team-building retreat where a large team of about 20 people was challenged to assemble a puzzle made of several wooden boards. Doesn’t sound that hard. But here’s the catch: the boards had to be assembled in under 90 seconds. They also had to be lying, stacked at the beginning of the 90 seconds in an order different than the order in which they needed to be assembled. We could take up to 45 minutes to work together as a team to plan our strategy. And yes, it took almost the entire 45 minutes.

We decided to assign each board to one person. Then we formed a line where we remembered the order of the people based on the order of the stacked boards. Then we formed another line where we remembered the order in which the boards needed to be assembled. We practiced a few times, then we executed. We formed our first line, swooped by the stacked boards and picked them up, formed the second line, and quickly assembled the end-structure. We did it all within the 90 seconds. Mission accomplished.

This experience made a very deep impression upon me. I realized that the time it takes to solve a problem can often be preempted by precision planning — simply identifying each step, who performs it, and its order relative to the other steps. I’ve used this approach to create and translate websites, produce workbooks, build BI dashboards, and create amazing content with extreme levels of complexity.

But that doesn’t sound like rocket science! Is that really a special tactic? Yes and no. You can practice precision planning in your own organization. All it takes is a little patience, discipline, and the willingness to write down exactly what, who, how long, and in what order. Why, then, don’t people do more of this? The answer is simple: it’s hard. Chalk it up to unclear processes, changing scope, and a lack of expertise across a broad set of disciplines.

If you’re struggling with a problem in your organization, such as an off-track project, I strongly urge you to consider precision planning as your special tactic of choice. It will reunify your shattered teams, give people a view of the path forward, and reinvigorate your culture. Your team members will feel a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie and they will be proud to work together. Oh yeah, and that pressing deadline you were trying to reach … yeah, check that off.