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Expect The Unexpected

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

All plans will be wrong; the question is: by how much? – Claude Maley

Weather forecasts are notoriously wrong: 2 feet of show when they just called for a “dusting”, near drought conditions when they predicted high hurricane activity. Even record low temperatures despite knowledge of global “warming”.

The forecasters have become better in recent years, progressing from the basic Farmers’ Almanac to modern super-computer models. They have made particular progress with short-term forecasts based on radar and satellite data where the more variables and interactions they can model, the more data points they can capture, and the quicker they can recalculate and update the data, then the more dependable the forecast becomes.

Project plans are much the same. Even the best ones cannot hope to capture all the possible variables and future actions that could impact the plan, and the further out in time the plans go, the greater the chance for error. However that’s no excuse to start with a blank sheet of paper, or fit the entire 18-month plan on to a bar napkin, either. Good project planning eventually comes down to good knowledge management: To be able to create a complete plan without having to re-discover all the best practices and mistakes of the past.

Best practices should be universal, and mistakes should be unique

This requires maintaining and updating some form of template project plan that includes the cumulative learning from all earlier projects. Include all the facts that are known; when the answers aren’t known, include a checklist of questions to ask to determine the facts; and state all assumptions as facts that can then be verified or corrected. The more you can include, the less chance for misunderstanding or error.

But still be ready to discover new things that have not happened before and that nobody expected.

A good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan next weekGeorge S. Patton

There is, however, a trade-off to be made between spending large amounts of time capturing every activity in great detail and assessing as many possible risks and outcomes as possible, and getting the plan underway. Avoid trying to create a “prefect” plan. The law of diminishing returns rules those plans. Instead, recognize that your plan is going to be wrong in some way, and be ready to change the plan as you go along to accommodate those imperfections. Just remember to “pay it forward” and record those adaptations either as best practices or mistakes to be avoided.

If you can do all that, I predict you will have a bright future. Maybe.

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