Mitigating the risk of poor planning in projects

Arms and hands of two project managers examining project plans laid on a desk with laptops
It is very common for organizations to ask project managers to deliver a plan for approval at short notice and this increases the risks for its delivery.

What is rarely recognized is that a hastily-produced plan risks being incomplete, leading to delays, quality compromises and cost overruns during its execution. It is more likely than not that a hasty plan will be incomplete, so it scores a likelihood of 5/5. The severity of potential impact(s) is unknown, therefore should also be scored 5/5.

So, a hastily-produced plan represents a level 25/25 risk to the delivery of a project. However, taking a modest but methodical, two-stage mitigation strategy based on the constructive use of PRINCE2® techniques will improve the quality of a project’s plan, especially for the early stages of a project.

First-level mitigation strategy

The first step is to produce a challenge-approved Product Breakdown Structure (PBS). Considerable value comes from robustly challenging its content but the main point is a need for the structure in the second-level mitigation when identifying most of the remaining, minor gaps or omissions.

The first challenge is defining the precise meaning of “Completed” for the project. This identifies significant products beyond the completion of the obvious technical deliverable, such as warranty support, operational acceptance of the new product or service, administrative deliverables or monitoring benefits.

Splitting the overall deliverable into sub-products can follow a standard PRINCE2 approach. The key point is that the PBS should be constructively challenged for completeness by a knowledgeable team of peers and/or work-stream leaders. A workshop to achieve this should take no more than a day.

The resulting PBS is still unlikely to be comprehensive but it reduces the risk of major omissions and the potential impact of three or four out of five. This gives a mitigated risk score halved to about 12/25.

Second-level mitigation strategy

The final level of mitigation is to produce Product Descriptions (PDs) for all the bottom-level products in the PBS for the whole project if possible (or at least for the next couple of project stages). When drafting you should challenge seriously the “Derivation” section of each PD in order to build a full list of each product’s pre-requisites. The key challenge can be expressed as: “if you had everything listed in ‘Derivation’ could you start to deliver this product now?”

A “no” implies that one or more products are likely to be missing from the PBS and need to be added (and themselves challenged, in turn). A catalogue of “yes” answers gives a good level of confidence that the PBS is complete.

What of the planning risk? Even if the likelihood and potential Impact of omissions are not totally eliminated they are significantly reduced, say conservatively to two each, so the result is a risk score mitigated from 25/25 to just 4/25.

Producing thoroughly-challenged Product Breakdown Structures and Product Descriptions is not an administrative overhead. It is a methodical and very productive way of constructing a comprehensive project plan and mitigating a significant project risk.

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