Using Chaos to Organize large scale programs and projects

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

I frequently see and hear about how organizations struggle with the planning of programmes or large scale projects, as is often the case nowadays, they involve the integration of many partners, business units, mavericks, doubters and in summary complexity. The complexity, at first, creates chaos which manifests itself as overwhelming dependencies and uncertain delivery dates. This can be a headache. A big headache.

What happens often is that there is a long malaise of inactivity and spinning of wheels without tangible progress (sometimes called Planning Paralysis). Execs and senior managers get impatient and attempt to intervene by de-scoping deliverables, changing structures or setting hares running in the wrong direction. It’s their prerogative and understandable.

But it needn’t be that way, if you understand how a chaotic situation like this can be controlled by allowing uncertainty in, and ‘banking’ the certainties. Let me explain.

The world isn’t perfect, so therefore information is not perfect. Projects start with assumptions and beliefs, and a planning process starts from there. Often these assumptions on scope, resource availability, buy-in and budget are flawed (as time tells). It’s safe to say that the project starts from an optimistic point of view. However it is often the tendency of project planners to try to fix a plan of a long-term project in minute detail in order to get to (what is often an arbitrarily set) target completion date. As information flows back into the planning process, the dependencies are mapped onto a ‘critical path’ – the date can’t be met. Panic ensues. Chaos reigns.

But what if we ‘banked’ the certainties? I.e. if we were confident (say 90% plus) of the next three months of a twelve month project but only 50% certain of the following nine months, why not say that? Why not let chaos be controlled after the first three months with that caveat? As a project planner, if you can give certainty for 90 days ahead, that is a positive statement. Besides even if you could give certainty now for the whole twelve months, something will come later to disrupt it. Guaranteed. By applying a rolling plan of certainty, you can get the project moving and starting banking the resulting deliveries. Allowing chaos room later (and it will likely be always later, not the next three months) then you have the project under management.

Of course, the prevailing period of chaos must have a project framework of resources, deliverables and delivery dates. This approach won’t work if you’re blind to the full scope of the project. But the lynchpin of this approach is establishing an active and pro-active planning mechanism for three months ahead.

In highly risk-averse environments, this approach may not be considered acceptable. I’ve found this strange as there is always a balance of risk of doing something and not doing something. Without this approach, I have found, the project takes a long time to gain momentum and traction on deliveries. This initial period is almost always unplanned.

Final point is to address the above point. In highly risk-averse environments, my recommendation is to plan on a lengthy period of feasibility and dependency analysis upfront, where all questions are answered, plugged into the plan and further iterations performed. However, the appetite of risk must be shared right up to Exec level for this to work, or chaos will take hold as Execs’ perform their ‘management interventions’.

This subject was suggested by Brian Jones in New York City (thanks Brian)

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