This Week on Freaky Friday: A Project Plan – what for?

Just these days I was able to close a quite big ecommerce project, that I had planned at the end of last year. It was successfully deployed at the exact day I scheduled back in December. Since it was clear that I would split from the company when finished with the project, a new project manager that just joined came to me and asked me about the project plan. When I told her that the plan was basically a tool to calculate the end date and show the milestones and to discuss the project on that base with the customer, she was quite stunned. She asked me how I managed the project without close tracking of the plan. That made me think a bit.

The planed milestones was really the only thing that counted after the project itself was accepted by the customer (to be honest: I didn’t take a look or modify the plan since mid of January). All people involved (it was 6 departments from the company plus the customer itself) got the milestone dates over and over again from me via voice/email/letter/carrier pigeon. And from day one I let the teams do their job without interfering in the details too much. In a project like this (international rollout of a brand new custom made software version) it is quite impossible to get in all details on the technical part. For running things smooth, my boss teamed me up with a brilliant software guy, who took care of the more technical stuff, where I concentrated on the organisational part. So we managed to make 6 country rollouts in just 5 month.

Now I ask myself what would have happened, if I had sticked to the plan and all its to-do’s. My best guess is that we would have missed the timeline completly. But why is this? Here are the take aways:

  • In a complex environment with that many teams you can not really take care of all tasks happening (writing down in a plan is not caring!).
  • It is illusion, that you can really control anything, you only can provide some steering.
  • If you are not with the company for a long time, you only see the surface of the political culture – don’t think you can play the game on eye-level.
  • You have to stress the milestones all the time, until everybody knows them – even if waking him up at 4 in the morning.
  • You have to integrate people in the planning process of tasks and milestones, since only then they feel kind of committed to the project – right from the start. Even if you know already at what date the project has to be closed, don’t tell them, but let them calculate the dates and come up with it in their own.
  • Let the departments do their job – it takes a lot of trust, but in the end you have to trust your main contacts in the departments; if you try to interfere with their daily work you will be recognised as an enemy and also you could slow down productivity since you are for sure not aware of all processes going on there.
  • Drink a lot of coffee – not alone, but with all people from the project. I know this one is an old one, but so true. This is the only way of knitting a team together that in most cases is not a team in means of hierarchy.
  • Don’t get yourself mucked! People will try all the time, and tell you that making that button red instead of white will take 2 weeks…
  • Explain what you need the estimations for. Also explain that they will not used to blame someone on the project, but they are needed as a measure to plan. Emphazise this over and over again – it takes some time until you are trusted.

So the last month were quite demanding, but also fun to make the project happen and interact with such a bandwidth of people. And looking back this approach of milestone driven flexible day-to-day work makes complete sense for the kind of project I was working on.

Now: what is your perspective on that? How do you use project plans on the stuff you do? Are they really needed in the old fashioned way in today’s high-speed, high-flexibility ecommerce projects?

Picture from VFS Digital Design

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