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Who can tell me what should be in my Project Plan document?
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Project Plan is one of the most important sources of project information, yet there is little consensus on what constitutes a sufficiently thorough project plan that is not excessively detailed.  A project manager may inadvertently fall into a pattern of constructing and using a cursory or superficial project plan, introducing several risks to the project. Or, the project manager may fall into the all-too-common habit of believing that the project schedule is the entirety of the project’s plan.  The cure for this is to develop an improved understanding of project plan topics, structure & uses, and then apply this critical knowledge when creating a project plan.

The meeting didn't go all that well.  In fact, it didn't go well at all - some might have even called it a disaster.  Campbell, a respected project manager, had been running projects in the company for many years and had been looking forward to this first opportunity to present the project plan to the new program executive.  The program executive spent most of the time asking questions about information that wasn't included in the project plan, and seemed to be conveying a rather disappointing message of "you didn't plan this project very well." Who could think of a worse way to start a relationship with a new executive!

So what was really happening here?  Was this a matter of project manager incompetence, or was this really a clash of two very different but valid views of a project plan? Let's look at each person's perspective:

Situations like this are not unusual in organizations that lack a strong project management culture.  Projects regularly fail or disappoint but it takes the introduction of a new factor (e.g., a new executive/director, launch of a PMO) to highlight the need for discussing, and perhaps implementing, a different approach that will improve organizational performance and results.

I regularly see project plans that appear to be wholly inadequate, and have little surprise when the project inevitably fails to complete as "planned" (or succeeds only because of the valiant efforts of many heroes who go well beyond expectations to recover a poorly planned effort).  As well, I occasionally see the voluminous project plan that seems to write about every imaginable facet of the project, regardless of significance; I shrug my shoulders and wonder if such a plan is actually a "write only, read never" document that will be destined to a life of gathering dust on the shelf once the project is underway. Clearly there is an enormous lack of consensus within the project management community on what constitutes a good project plan.  Indeed, the search for a perfect project plan that is applicable to all projects may be a fool’s errand.

Let's look at some important "project plan concepts" and then re-visit Campbell and the project executive to see how they moved forward from the catastrophe that was their first project plan review.

 

What is a Project Plan?

A project plan contains information that is used to manage a project.  You’ll create it early in the life of the project and the team will use it in managing the execution of the project.Here’s what some credible project management references have to say when defining a project plan:

Here’ my take on project plans – a project plan . . .

  

What a Project Plan isn’t

Let’s look at the project plan from another perspective – what a project plan isn’t:

  

Determining the Contents of Your Project’s Plan

Project Managers, you may encounter someone (e.g., your organization’s PMO, an expert project manager, a consultant) who approaches you with a complete and comprehensive specification of everything that must be included in your project plan;  raise your shields, put on your thinking cap, and apply some considered thought before unquestioningly using their template or specification.

There is no one perfect specification that accurately lists the complete set of information that must be in all project plans – any such specification could not possibly be applicable to the many different types of projects you'll probably manage in your career.  The absence of a universally valid project plan specification that is valid across an extreme range of project characteristics creates a few problems for project managers: if we don't know what constitutes a perfect project plan, how does a project manager actually know what type of project plan to construct for their project?  How can the management and executive team know that the right plans are being constructed for use in managing the organization's projects?  How can a project manager prepare to satisfy the company or organization's expectations and requirements of the project planning activities?  The answer to these questions lies in gaining enough expert knowledge about project plans, and then applying your newly-developed expert judgment.  Here is an approach that is actionable by all project managers:

  

Moving Forward with Campbell and the Program Executive

Following their first project plan review, Campbell and the Program Executive recognized that they had two very different views of project planning.  After an initial rush of anxiety and concern about job security, Campbell recognized that this was an opportunity to learn more about project planning.  The program executive arranged project plan training for Campbell and other project managers, and set an expectation of improved performance in creating more thorough project plans; organizational line managers established specific performance goals with their project managers, reinforcing the high level expectations set by the program executive.

In upcoming months a few project managers recognized that they had neither the skills nor the inclination to develop the skills that were needed to manage projects in this organization, and they departed for other opportunities.  Campbell and other project managers starting applying improved approaches to planning and creating a project plan, and had excellent results in improving the organization’s project completion performance.

  

One Important Point to Ponder

So, what is your response when a project manager asks: Who can tell me what should be in my Project Plan document?