There are a few keys to successful execution – project planning is one of them. This would include setting deadlines, nominating accountable parties, creating habits, etc. Planning is essential. However, plans are often useless. (Adapted quote from Dwight Eisenhower.) Or, as Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Okay, so why have a plan at all? Running a business or leading a team requires a plan to provide consistent direction. But an environment will change, and environments don’t wait until plans are executed successfully. So what do we do about it? The project planning process needs to allow for continuous prioritisation, and re-prioritisation.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Why project planning requires prioritisation
So we say that project planning is essential. Why? Here are a few reasons (not exhaustive):
- Deadlines need to be understood and communicated – even if just with some level of confidence. Without a deadline, a commitment is not worth much.
- To mobilise a team, people need to have a plan and a purpose – they need to know there’s a chance that this might succeed, based on the plan.
- Only once a plan is in place, can the accountability conversation begin. Team members need to be aware of, and comfortable with, their role on a project.
When all elements of a project are captured, dependencies can be raised. By highlighting dependencies, we’ve created a deeper and more robust understanding of the commitments made, and the probability of meeting them.
What this project plan looks like is debatable and varies significantly in various elements – e.g. the detail that included or the level of commitment made. Some plans are set in stone, some plans are more adaptable.
The biggest challenge with project plans that are set in stone is that priorities change. The move from waterfall to agile was designed to address this in software development. (Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.) We would argue that any planning process that doesn’t allow for a dynamic environment is archaic. Environments change, which leads to changing priorities, which will require project plans to change with them.
Prioritisation is a very unique problem – the set of priorities a business decides to pursue is particular to that business. However, we often find that very unique problems can be solved with generic processes.
“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”
The 5-step prioritisation process
Most of what we’ve come across in searching for solutions to the prioritisation problem are frameworks. The MoSCoW method, the Kano model, business value calculations. We’ve even found a range of animals that will help you prioritise. These are all frameworks to rank projects against each other. They are helpful if all projects are comparable. What they don’t address is the process of prioritisation – even more so the process of continuous prioritisation – that is required in a VUCA environment.
Here are a few ways prioritisation methods to avoid. (Image by Productboard via customerthink.com.)
The following 5 steps are used in some shape or form in various planning processes – from scrum to Objectives and Key Results, amongst others. We’ve adapted it and made it generic enough so that it can be applied in various situation and multiple cadences.
The first step is to capture everything that could arise as a priority. David Allen (Getting Things Done) has a principle that goes something like this: the difference between capturing 95% and 100% of the things in your mind is not 5% – because that 5% keeps on churning in your mind like clothes in a tumble dryer. Writing it down relieves some of that anxiety.
Furthermore, when working in a team, writing things down gives the team a level of comfort that they’re being heard (even if they are being heard without it being written down). There’s proof that they’re being heard.
It also ensures that you don’t start from scratch in the next cycle. Chances are, at least some of what is important now, will still be important in the next cycle – whether that next cycle is tomorrow, next week, next month, next quarter, or next year.
This is the critical step in this process. When we facilitate OKRs with our clients, we often ask “what’s the most important thing you can focus on to progress your strategy?” The answer often comes back “Get revenue, keep the lights on, satisfy the regulator”. And then we can’t argue this. Because it’s true, the lights need to keep burning. But it’s not strategic. That’s not what will differentiate your business 5 years from now. So what do we do about it?
The frameworks mentioned earlier are useful only to some extent is because business is rarely simple enough to plot on a matrix. We find that projects fit into different categories – different dimensions if you will. Here’s a view of some dimensions to consider. A project could fall into either:
- Revenue-generating activities (anything that touches our clients or customers),
- Maintenance activities (the things we need to do to keep the engine running),
- Strategic activities (the changes in direction or hypotheses about the future), or
- Firefighting activities (unplanned work, that could be related to team health, client crises, or say a global pandemic).
Activities in the different buckets aren’t comparable. What can we use as a metric to compare a strategic project that might make up the bulk of our business 5 years from now, with a POPI project that needs urgent attention? Trying to compare these projects to each other, and plot them on the same matrix, is the wrong exercise.
The right exercise, in our view, is to categorise projects across these four categories. Once we’ve written everything down, where do they fit? Are they super strategic? Or simply maintenance?
No framework, methodology or process is going to circumvent the decision point. Prioritising scarce resource is the most important role of a business leader. And this requires a decision.
We propose, however, to change the decision that needs to be made. Instead of asking “what do we do first?”, we’re asking “how do we want to split our effort across these four categories?”. Note that the answer to this question might (probably will) differ by role and level in the organisation. You might also distinguish between seasons in the organisation – some cycles could be committed to maintenance, some to strategic, etc.
Once a decision has been made around the split of effort across categories, projects within a category can be compared. And now one of the many frameworks that are already available can be used to make this decision easier.
Our experience from assisting teams set up OKRs is that most teams overestimate what they can achieve over the short term. The antidote to this is to think through the next level of detail. This would entail drafting initiatives that are required to meet the Key Results.
Once we start thinking through initiatives, we are often met with a reality shock of the time, attention and capital required. This is why we advocate for Allocate to be a distinct step in the process.
Do the exercise, calculate the cost! Allocate time (of individuals and teams) and capital to the projects that are being pursued.
It’s no secret that we strongly encourage reflection and contemplation within any process. We don’t learn from doing, we learn from reflecting. (John Dewey)
Ask a few pointed questions to help with reflection – are we taking on too much? Or not enough? Are we satisfied with the balance across categories? How much time do we spend fighting fires?
Then adapt the process. Change it until it works for you.
And then repeat. How often we repeat this process will depend on what we’re doing. It could be daily, often during crisis management. It could be weekly or fortnightly, as seen in scrum. It could be quarterly, as seen in OKRs. It could be annually, as often seen in strategy processes.
We talk about habits a lot. Creating healthy business habits is what will create long term momentum, which should trump short term gains. Long term thinking often goes against human nature and the way that companies and individuals are incentivised. Don’t expect this process to be perfect on day 1.
Once you’re in the ring, be ready to change priorities and plans. Adopt a long term mindset and keep going!