Skip to content

Think! Before you plan…

06 Dec 2010

Too busy planning to think?

In my experience, it is all too easy to rush into a Programme or Project, throwing the full panoply of planning methodologies at them and then be surprised as the initiatives begin to founder. Why is that?

Often, the problem is that too little thinking is done up front, when a project or programme is started. Projects and programmes are designed to implement or deliver some form of change – whether that is (for example) business process improvement, a new policy, an ICT project or a new building. However, too little thought at the outset as to the nature of the change and the level of uncertainty involved can mean that the best planning methodologies are applied in an inappropriate way.

Eddie Obeng[1] has helpfully written about two main elements of uncertainty for Programmes and Projects – how well the objectives/outcomes are known (the ‘what’) and how well the mechanisms for delivery are known (the ‘how’). This classic ‘Boston Grid’ (see below) then suggests four different kinds of change project or programme.

Obeng project analysis grid

Problems arise if, for example, ‘vanilla’ PRINCE 2 is used on a project in the bottom left box. Here, lack of clarity of exactly what is being delivered and how that will be achieved, means that detailed planning with resource schedules, full document control, mature governance arrangements etc., is highly likely to do more harm than good. Instead,the plans needed are likely to comprise very short bursts of activity designed to clarify the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ (quite often – though not always – in that order), working very closely with stakeholders with frequent decision points to review progress.

Surely, I here you cry, all change initiatives know what they are trying to achieve – otherwise, how could they start? Well – yes and no. Yes, because there is likely to be some high level statement of direction. For example, eradication of child poverty in a generation or diversification into a new market. No because, although both of these examples are about the ‘what’ – that is not defined to a level that much reduces the uncertainty of exactly what will be delivered. For example – what mechanism will be delivered to help reduce child poverty? Or exactly into which markets and with what products should we diversify?

Interestingly, on this ‘what’/’how’ analysis, the ‘simple’ application of project or programme management methodologies only works well in what we have called the ‘template’ box – where the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are both clear. ‘Simple’ not because such projects or programmes aren’t complex or difficult – they often are; simple because the planning horizon is much longer, with clear understanding of resource needs etc.

That doesn’t mean that initiatives starting elsewhere on the grid shouldn’t be planned – far from it. But the nature of the plans, the type of resources involved, the nature of governance, the level and type of stakeholder involvement, etc. will all be very different for each of the areas on the grid.

So – what’s the message here? That methodologies like PRINCE 2 and MSP don’t work? Emphatically not! They are both sound and highly comprehensive approaches. Paradoxically, given what I have said above – both can be applied to all points on the grid. The message is the unthinking application of these approaches in the expectation that the project or programme can then be successful is positively dangerous. Both PRINCE 2 and MSP should be applied with careful thought, including consideration of where on the above grid the project or programme falls.

For more information on our approach to project and programme kick-off or evaluation, please contact us at

[1] Founder of the Pentacle Business School

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: