Giving up Planning to Improve Effectiveness?AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“Have a bias towards action – let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.” ~ Indira Gandhi
We are generally not good at planning projects that we have not carried out before. It makes sense, we lack the information and experience to adjust the scope of the project to reality.
When difficulties or unforeseen events arise, it is necessary to adapt, analyse risks and manage change. These are skills that are taught to professional project managers, but the rest of us (who also plan our personal and professional projects on a daily basis) do not usually develop them properly.
In addition to the inherent difficulty of project planning, studies indicate that we are rather pathetic when it comes to estimating completion times. Planning Fallacy and Its Causes: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times, by Buehler, Griffin and Ross, examines the tendency of people to underestimate the time they need to complete a task, and explores the reasons behind this tendency. The authors identify several factors that contribute to the planning fallacy, including lack of experience with a task, focus on the “better than expected” scenario, and failure to consider potential obstacles.
In general, we all have a tendency to be optimistic in our estimates and to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that university students underestimated the time it would take them to complete a task by 40%. But it turns out that professional project managers don’t do much better: Another study in the International Journal of Project Management found that project managers tend to underestimate the time to complete a project by 33%.
Given all this, we should be skeptical about planning, especially when it focuses on the outcome rather than the actual work needed to achieve the goal. Yet most people are in the habit of planning what they have to do from start to finish.
The GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology is committed to natural planning model, which allows maximum value to be obtained with minimum effort. It is an informal approach, which does not require a lot of initial work:
- You define the purpose of the project. Why are you doing this? What is the goal?
- You define the end result. What would allow you to say that the project has been successfully completed?
- You generate a few ideas. How could you carry out this project?
- You organize everything. Now you can identify the different components of the project and define the sequence of activities you will undertake and their priorities.
- You identify the next actions. What are the next actions for each of the moving parts of a project?
It is only a matter of thinking about the first actions you can take to make progress. In reality, you only need to think about the next visible, physical action that moves the project forward or completes it. If you think any further, you will probably be over-planning, meaning you will be working ahead unnecessarily because the result of the next action will probably make you see other paths that you are not seeing now.
The only thing you really need to advance a project is that the next action to be taken is well defined and feasible.
The problem with linear planning is not that one of the steps takes more time than we had imagined, but that it sets us on a path that is likely to be deficient or incomplete.
There are several advantages to focusing on the next actions that can be executed rather than planning a project in detail:
- Greater flexibility: By not having a rigorous, detailed plan, you will find it easier to adapt to changes and adjust the direction of the project as needed.
- Less time spent on planning: Planning a project in detail can take a lot of time and resources, which can be wasted time if changes have to be made at the end.
- Increased focus on execution: By focusing on the next actions that can be executed, you avoid distractions and produce results more quickly.
- Less risk of information overload: In some cases, excessive planning can result in information overload that can be overwhelming and difficult to process. Planning based on a few next actions make the project more manageable.
- Increased motivation: Focusing on next actions helps generate a constant sense of accomplishment.
- Less stress: A detailed and extensive plan can generate anxiety and stress as you face all possible future problems at once.