Are Project Planning Tools Really All They’re Hyped Up to Be?

Posted by Tom Polen on October 27, 2016

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Project planning tools. There are hundreds of them out in the market – for scheduling, cost management, risk assessment, progress reporting, and so on. But are these tools really all they’re hyped up to be? We’re tackling this very hot topic in today’s post (and in my latest podcast, found here).

But first let’s talk about what planning tools are and then we'll figure out if they’re really all they’re hyped up to be.

For me, the project schedule is where all planning starts. This can, often will, and arguably should start during the proposal phase. If you're company is competing to perform some type of work, it seems like a good idea to know what you're getting in to, doesn’t it?

How you go about planning is up to you, as it can be performed in many different ways – from handwritten plans and Excel spreadsheets, to fully-baked, detailed project schedules that are crafted with the help of a robust scheduling tool. It’s important to note; however, that the level of planning detail should be consistent with the complexity of the work and the overall budget (meaning there's no one single answer as to the level of detail required). But I will say this – you should use a tool suited for the purpose. Normally, that means a critical path method scheduling tool. The critical path method is the secret language of scheduling, and allows for sequencing activities, resource loading them, and providing status updates, so that you know if you're on track, and where things may have gotten away from you during project execution.

Next comes cost planning. I like to think of that as a direct line from your scheduling tool over to your cost tool. In other words, if you don't know what the activities are, how they are sequenced, and who is working on them, you can’t know how much you plan to spend.

After cost planning, there are a couple more pieces (and tools) to the project planning puzzle, including assessing the quality of your plan and performing risk assessment on your schedule. The end goal is to find the loose ends in your project plan and tie them out. It’s important to identify areas where your team might have used features in your scheduling tool incorrectly – either on accident or in order just to hold dates on a plan that may not be reasonable. Furthermore, your risk tool should show you where you may be too optimistic or pessimistic in your plan due to task uncertainty and discrete risk events that can throw that project right off the rails.

I'm the first to say that all of this planning information, from schedule and cost, to quality and risks is more than I can track in my head.

So are project planning tools essential? Yes, even for small projects.

So what about the hype? It's real.

However, and here's the big swerve... these tools can be useless in any situation.

I started my career as a project planner, and I was the only one who did not hesitate to volunteer when we needed to send a team member to get trained on one of the popular scheduling tools of the day. I was a computer programmer who also focused on business systems integration. If it involved a computer, I'd do it. I went to training and I learned the planning software immediately. By the second day of the training class, I was walking around the training room helping the instructor (yeah, I was the guy that everybody was annoyed at, who went ahead in the book and finished the whole course in a couple of hours).

However, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to actually using the software properly. I knew the capabilities and which ones to avoid, but here's where the problems came in...

When I was talking with people that were providing input to the plan, I keyed in exactly what they said. If they said something took a week, I typed in five days. If they said a month, I typed in about 22 working days. I took their word for it. If they gave me a spaghetti-like sequence of tasks, I just typed it all in. I was planning! Except that I wasn't. I was listening to people who were optimistic, pessimistic, and who sometimes had an agenda that I didn't know about. I didn’t take into consideration past project performance, and I had a very loose handle on the technology that we were developing on these projects.

In short, I was not a good planner, even though I was an ace with the tools. The projects I planned were behind schedule from the very first status update. And we planned and re-planned them many times. Each time we started with the same planning template, and each time, the projects, as we were statusing them turned into a mess.

Unanticipated events were happening all the time, and we came to the realization that each and every one of our plans were sunny day scenarios that weren't taking the realities of task execution into account. As I was creating the plans, I never asked questions like, "What can go wrong?" and "What happened last time we tried to do it this way?" I followed directions and I built schedules. But they weren't plans...they were schedules.

So what did I learn? Tools help out a ton with planning. So yes, the hype is real. But, right alongside that, you need to find and/or train people to be able to plan... not just operate the tools, but to ask the tough questions, help the team identify risk, and to be able to stand up and say "Wait. This plan isn't reasonable. We need to keep working on this plan, incorporate risk, and make sure that it truly has a level of quality that is consistent with the size and complexity of the project goal."

Tools are great, but it's people make the plan, get the job done, and win the day.

 

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