Progressive Elaboration, Planning Onions And The Reality Check

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy – said Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke.

It’s impossible to have a perfect plan given the variety of factors at play during execution. At best, plans denote one possibility, the best possibility that we think at a given point in time of how the things might unfold. No one knew it more than General Dwight David Eisenhower who laid out one of the most elaborate plans ever made in history, Operation Overlord which changed the course of World War II and still said –

Plans are useless but planning is indispensable.

Not all of us work on plans these grand but there is no doubt that experienced project managers would appreciate the truth in this statement fully. Project plans when they hit the grind of execution face unforeseen challenges that could never be thought of during the planning. It is practically impossible to plan for everything but we can attempt to reduce the impact of these uncertainties. The best way of dealing with uncertainty is to iterate. Whether you are a proponent of the traditional project management and refer to is as progressive elaboration, or an agile proponent advocating the use of planning onions, the concept remains essentially the same and involves iterative and incremental planning. Planning detail is highest closer to the current context and progressively decreases further in the timeline.

It is essential that the project teams have clear understanding and clarity of the different planning horizons in their particular project context e.g considering the agile planning onions, an iteration could have a two-week planning horizon necessitating a higher level of detail compared to the release planning which might be a 6 month timeline and lesser level of detail. Having a clear understanding of the planning horizon provides the rightly needed plane of reference to decide on the level of planning detail needed. The accuracy of the plan decreases as we get further beyond the horizon. Projects must continue to work with a “living” plan which is adapting to the emerging realities of the project. The ongoing planning exercise must also consider the knowledge and experienced gained by the team as the project moves forward. Additionally, projects should have inbuilt mechanisms to allow project teams enough bandwidth and leverage to raise their head from the daily grind, look at the coming horizons and work hand in glove with the planners as a truly collaborative exercise.

Ongoing planning does not mean that it is now wild west and dynamic adaptive plans lose focus on the project objectives or other constraints. Neither does it imply that adapting in face of delays could mean timeline changes.

Ongoing planning balances the effort and investment in planning throughout the life cycle of the project and is essentially a mindset change to become more aware of the changing realities . At the same time, it requires putting mechanisms for that reality check for a project planning and execution that involves proactive responses instead of surprised reactions.