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Planning for new and complex projects

Angela Lecomber
February 25, 2011

Forming effective project plans

The singular unifying characteristic new and complex projects possess is the inability for all stakeholders to ‘be on the same page’ and envision the same outcome. Characteristically, both would be defined as ‘fog-type’ projects, yet both require:

  • The need to singularly and actively involve close collaborative stakeholder engagement in the definition of its deliverables;
  • The articulation of what the real benefits are before the planning process is completed; and
  • The clarification and understanding of roles and responsibilities in the links across the project and beyond in terms of the relationships of the project deliverables with other products, systems, business processes and people.

Active involvement of stakeholders: Good project managers will typically ensure they have identified, as far as possible, all the stakeholders and ensure, through good communication, that stakeholders have clarity of the project’s objectives and outputs. Before detailed planning takes place, stakeholder agreement for the project’s outputs are obtained. This has long been recognised as a significant factor for project success.

Nevertheless, despite the methodologies advocated by PMBoK and PRINCE2, stakeholder engagement is still fraught with issues in practice. These issues and difficulties appear to be more of a challenge in new and complex projects, which affect scope definition in the initiation stage of a project. These are issues that we all recognise:

  • Difficulty having multiple stakeholders with different expectations; for example, is it the customer or the displaced people who benefit from the output of the project, or is it the organisation that finances the development or donates the money for recovery? This introduces complexity in scope definition and pressures that complicate planning in terms of the urgency to deliver outputs and outcomes. This brings different dynamics into the planning of the solution.
  • Complications due to delivering intangible deliverables that are more likely to have a greater effect on the outcome than the obvious, tangible deliverables.
  • Difficulties in having stakeholders and teams with diverse backgrounds, understanding and values that may not have the best relationships at their recognised level of competence to bring about resolution of issues.

Applying rich picture techniques used in soft systems methodology in an innovative way, Dr Paul Steinfort, as part of his thesis, developed the Rich Picture Capability Maturity Matrix to assess the extent to which stakeholder engagement and other soft issues are managed. This provides a snapshot of project health at the planning stage. Those who have seen the technique have endorsed it, saying that it encapsulates the key elements of planning precisely.

‘Rich pictures’, as applied in Steinfort’s work, then led to the colour coded Capability Maturity Matrix (below), which is used to capture the problem situation and to conduct meaningful engagement with stakeholders. The question it addresses is, ‘What worries them?’. This then enables the definition of a shared vision and the formation of a practical plan. Steinfort uses colours and the idea of their natural understandings: red for urgency, danger; orange for support and integration; yellow for persuasion and creativity; green for growth, go, and safety; blue for depth, achievement; and purple for independence and wisdom.

We know that the three most cited factors for project failure are lack of stakeholder engagement, lack of communication, and lack of clear roles and responsibilities. It is not surprising, therefore, that the red focus is on ‘stakeholders, culture, vision and leadership’. It is obvious that without getting this right, the project is doomed to fail. Similarly, going across, we have the all-important ‘organisation and values’ followed by ‘communication’. Progressing further horizontally, the green area involves planning the project followed by the blue areas of ‘commit resource, contingency, milestone’ relating to the implementation of the project. The four key components to get right before implementation are those depicted by the red, orange, yellow and green areas.

The vertical axis shows the gradation in maturity of the project in these areas: are they at basic beginners stage of ‘awareness and initiation’ or moving through to ‘adoption’ or are they further developed and are routinely ‘actively engaging stakeholders’? This provides a snapshot of project health and a device to build a capability plan to ensure the project is heading towards a shared vision and understanding of the outputs and outcomes and, ultimately, the all important benefits of the project.

Articulating benefits before the planning process is complete: PRINCE2 introduced an update in 2009 that, for the first time, included the need to produce a benefits review plan as part of the planning process. It is produced at the same time as the detailed business case. The benefits are specified at the planning stage even before the project is implemented.

At the end of each stage, the benefits review plan, together with the business case, is reviewed to see if the project is still justified to go to the next stage and whether it is still on track to achieve the stated benefits, even if the benefits occur long after the project closes. The project must identify who will gain from the benefits after the project is closed and get them to articulate the benefits.

The clarification and understanding of the roles and responsibilities: A sound project plan ensures that the mechanisms to carry out the plan have been considered, especially by establishing links across the project and beyond. These links need to be established between the project deliverables and other products, systems, business processes and the needs of customers. A clear understanding of roles and responsibilities of project management team members and other stakeholders is key for achieving the success of the project, especially through good communication skills, stakeholder engagement and governance arrangements.

It is also important to determine where decisions are being made and to ask if this is the most appropriate level for them to be made. Accountability frameworks may have been set up but these may not meet the accountability requirements of all stakeholders, so trust breaks down.

In summary, today’s projects have challenges as articulated above, but we need to resist today’s cultural problem of impatience that leads to cutting corners at the planning stage. Ancient wisdom is applicable here: according to Aristotle, “Well begun is half done”.

Angela Lecomber
Angela Lecomber, CPPD, is the principal of See Differently, a consultancy specialising in transformational change. She has almost two decades of project management experience in seven sectors and four countries, and has extensive experience in shaping capability through empowering, training and coaching project teams.
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One thought on “Planning for new and complex projects

  1. Hi
    could send to me more details about basic and planing of mega project.at this time I am prapering thysis in this subject.
    with BR

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