A different approach to planning of transformation, change and technical projects is essential, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 23 Oct 2017 | 9:38 am | 3 min. read

ANALYSIS: Robust planning can set the business on the path to success as it embarks on complex change and business transformation and will significantly reduce risk. It brings visibility, alignment and focus. Without it, failure is inevitable.

The global market in which we operate is increasingly competitive with the costs of failure measured not only in financial terms, but also in terms of reputation. The delivery models of the past have failed; it’s time for a change that supports our customers better.  The required change begins with better planning.

It is imperative for businesses embarking on a major business transformation, programme or project to embed a robust approach to planning deep into the DNA of the organisation. This means recognising the value that good planning brings, whilst appreciating the effort that good planning requires.  A long to-do list will never provide the oversight and deliverability needed for complex change and adopting new technologies. The secret to success lies in recognising the intangible and tangible outcomes of effective planning. Our method facilitates this engagement and broader purpose.

A plan that will deliver success must contain 100% of the work required i.e. all activities needed to produce the deliverables, and all activities needed to set-up and decommission the operating model for the delivery to be undertaken.

Getting the planning sequence right and properly integrating the plans are critical. Equally as important, and the focus of this article, is the way that plans are built. Good plans are not built by chance and are always the result of a well-thought-out planning process, often tailored to the organisation in question. The inputs, activities and outputs of the planning process expedite the formation of a high performing team, enhance stakeholder engagement and translate strategy into reality. It flushes out and assesses all of the delivery management issues.  Most importantly, a good planning process and the plan it generates significantly increases the chances of delivery success.

Planning is not about typing a to-do list into a Gantt chart, indeed Gantt charts were actually designed to track progress and not to plan delivery. It is about deciding what needs to be delivered, in what sequence, and identifying the process that will produce the deliverables in question, adding the necessary resources and durations needed to complete the process and make it a plan. The intangible outputs from such a plan include, for example, improved stakeholder engagement and go far beyond merely completing a network diagram and maintaining a log of delivery management issues, as important as they are.

My experience is that agreeing a detailed work breakdown with key stakeholders, in a workshop scenario, drives a rich conversation which surfaces assumptions and misunderstandings regarding the journey about to be embarked upon. As we all know, one degree off course now is a much bigger, more expensive, problem later.

Having agreed the 'what', agreeing the 'how' for each 'what' is the next opportunity to bring the team together to continue to build consensus. Building a network, or precedence, diagram for each deliverable helps to ensure that the right delivery process is identified. This brings the disciplines of systems-thinking to the planning process. This helps to ensure the successful delivery is based on the right dependencies, and that any assumptions about how delivery might progress are uncovered.

It is helpful to bring the team together to integrate all the network diagrams into one super-network. This can be done by connecting paper versions of the diagrams together and pinning them on the wall one at a time, in order of dependencies identified or discovered as part of the process.

The next steps involve allocating resources and durations to each task in the network.  This will help identify the critical path and duration of the delivery.

Later, when the delivery is in progress, a network diagram is a highly effective way to track a plan; it is visual, interactive and more meaningful to all concerned than running one line at a time through a Gantt chart.

I am often engaged to help businesses in the recovery of wayward major transformations or complex technology deliveries. In my experience, an over-reliance on Gantt charts in the planning of those deliveries led to activities and dependencies being missed. This had an impact on the true duration needed to complete the work and impaired the assessment of risks, issues and opportunities associated with the delivery. 

In one such assignment,  we were able to help a telecom infrastructure supplier avoid $12m of liquidated damages by avoiding a projected three month overrun in delivery. When we first assessed the related 8,000-line Gantt chart and converted it to a network diagram, we discovered that the true overrun was actually on course to be four months. However, when we rectified the planning issues, the eventual overrun was only three days.

Executed correctly, this approach to planning has been shown to bring delivery success, bond delivery teams, engage stakeholders, delivers on and is backed by the economics of 'right-first-time'. You need to experience the power of great planning to believe it. There is an opportunity to do so at our upcoming Planning Academy.  

Mark Hunt is an expert in business transformation and technical deliveries. He is a delivery director at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.