A detailed project plan with a realistic schedule and well-defined milestones is vital for project success. Preparing the plan is one thing but it is also necessary to follow the plan – assuming that the plan is a good one.
The most effective project managers understand the importance of a robust project plan with reasonable estimates for each activity. So a considerable amount of time and effort usually goes into preparing the project plan. It requires enough detail so that every task can be assigned to the right person or team and they understand what is expected of them and when. It details dependencies between tasks so that risks can be thoroughly assessed and is one of the fundamental building blocks of a successful project.
But what happens if the plan is fundamentally flawed? Or if requirements change substantially part way through a project and the plan becomes meaningless? In such circumstances it can actually be detrimental to project success to continue to follow the plan. The project manager and the project team need to be flexible and adaptable in their approach to the project plan. Sticking rigidly to what was first specified is simply failing to grasp the realities of most projects.
And if it becomes obvious that the plan is flawed, you need to admit this and modify it to correct the errors. It may be a hard thing to admit but blindly following a plan that you know to be flawed will obviously never lead to a good outcome.
New or inexperienced project managers may be unprepared for the amount of flexibility required in real-life project plans and how many changes are required to the plan during the course of the project but experienced project managers will know that this is typical of most, if not all, complex projects.
Changes within projects can occur for a variety of reasons: essential staff leave, business priorities change, requirements become clearer as the project progresses, the business objective may simply change due to market forces. Changes can be due to internal factors within the organisation or external factors concerning suppliers or providers of outsourced services but whatever the reasons it is through the experience of managing many complex projects that you will learn that change is a normal part of every business and every project.
The best project managers employ project plans as a starting point into which will be built more information and details from team members working on individual tasks, from reassessment of the project’s resources as the project progresses and reviews of the business requirements and ultimate objective. It is, therefore, essential that you know how to monitor the status of projects and resources, and how to obtain meaningful feedback from team members and end-users.
Anyone involved in a project who believes that a project plan can be put in place at the outset of the project and simply followed through to a successful outcome is either inexperienced or has only ever worked on very simple projects.
So it is important to recognise that a failed project is not one that deviates from the project plan or schedule (or even the budget) but one that fails to deliver what the client needs or wants. Altering a plan to deliver what is required is simply one step on the path to delivering a successful project and should always be viewed as such. It is essential that everyone involved in the project is aware from the start that the plan is likely to change over time but it is just as important that the current plan is adhered to. It is a difficult balancing act to convince the stakeholders of the veracity of the plan at the outset whilst preparing them for the fact that it might change. No wonder so many people try to struggle on with an unsuitable plan rather than admit it needs updating but, nevertheless, this is what you must do to be successful.
A project plan will only create a problem if the project manager (or anyone else involved in the project) refuses to alter it to take account of changes that happen during the lifetime of the project. When you consider that many projects have a timeframe of several years it is unrealistic to expect the plan to remain unchanged.
All too often, failing projects become an operation to determine why the project is deviating from the plan and how to get it back on track instead of looking at how the objective could still be reached. This may be difficult to do, particularly when the original plan was part of the justification for the project, but it is not impossible if you concentrate on what the original business objective was. In fact many of the formal project methodologies focus on the business objective as the major factor in successful projects.
Project managers can often learn from previous projects and prepare for the next project by recording the differences between the expected schedule, budget etc and the actual data. Applying lessons learned to the next project will assist in managing the expectations of all those involved and improve the results of each successive project, which is why the most successful project managers are often the most experienced. But, for the less-experienced, there are project management courses on recognised methodologies such as PRINCE2, PMP Certification, and APM PQ that will teach many of the techniques that experienced project managers have had to learn the hard way.