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Is Your “Good” Project Planning Leading to Failed Projects?


All over the world, promising projects quickly morph into unmanageable creatures, exceeding budgets and eating up time. In response, the collective finger of blame points to everyone’s favorite excuse: bad planning.

If poor planning is responsible for failure, then it would stand to reason that good planning should be the savior. So many of us believe that “a failure to plan is a plan to fail,” and we grow confident that successful planning leads to successful project delivery.

Most planning is based on a “controls” model that makes it possible to estimate costs and identify the details needed to complete the project. But the granular level of detail that works nicely for accounting or a supply chain or in other contexts is not so good for project managers during execution. Secondly, many plans assume that everything will go according to plan, and that there will be no variation. “Planning for success” is what one manager called it.

Peter Drucker said, “…the word ‘controls’ is not the plural of the word ‘control’”. He’s right. Making a detailed plan doesn’t give real control; it gives the illusion of control. What provides control is having an understanding of the interdependencies of the work and having the flexibility to respond when the real world presents the team with the unexpected.

Planning for control is what we’ve been doing for the last fifty years: driving down to the details, identifying the tasks to accomplish and the resources that will complete them, time phasing them, etc. These complex and comprehensive plans are based on a premise of control: “comparing actual results with desired results and deciding whether to revise objectives or methods of execution.”

This is most people’s idea of control. They watch what happens, compare the events to what was expected, then change things to bring reality into line with their expectations. If too many things fail to match their picture of reality, even if that picture is only in their heads, they must add more detail to the plan. In this way, they can watch all the details (we have software!) and make adjustments when things go

These details are probably important to someone, and they should be. However, when managers have all that detail, it imposes additional complexity and volume on the task of managing delivery. All the minutiae, the various connections and the sheer volume of items involved in projects—and by extension, portfolios—exceed any single manager’s span of control.

What’s needed are plans that are built for execution; plans that can be executed. To reduce the complexity and enable action, our plan(s) must be tailored to our span of control. Those plans will then be used to respond to risks, and will drive behavior during execution.

How can “good” project planning harm project performance? This video explains that more planning is not necessarily good for your projects.

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