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Articles have been written about the importance of doing just enough planning to develop confidence in what we are proposing to do as well as the perils of either too much or too little planning.

But even a good enough plan can become obsolete at some point and we need the wisdom to know when it is time to jettison it.

A common portfolio management anti-pattern is the inability of gatekeepers to terminate low value projects in a timely manner. There are many causes for this, but one is the inability to easily write off project sunk costs. The same can be said of plans – some teams and especially their leaders can become so enamored with their plans that their confirmation biases cause them to ignore clear evidence that those plans are no longer valid.

So what are some signs that a project plan needs to be punted?

  1. The primary success criterion can no longer be achieved. All project constraints are important, but some have to be more important than others otherwise it will not be possible to develop realistic plans and to modify those plans as things change. If the primary objective can’t be achieved with our current approach, then we need to change our approach.
  2. A sufficiently material unknown-unknown risk is realized whose impact cannot be absorbed leading to the first condition above. I’m a big fan of the Die Hard movies, and the villain of the first film, Hans Gruber, commits the fatal mistake of underestimating John McClane’s abilities to derail his exquisitely designed plan to steal the bearer bonds from the Nakatomi building. His hubris is well summed up in the following exchange: Hans “We do NOT alter the plan!” Karl: “And, if HE alters it?
  3. A fundamental planning assumption is proven to be invalid. While planning the 9/11 attacks, the terrorists made the assumption that the passengers on board the hijacked flights wouldn’t have the courage to resist when faced with armed attackers. This assumption was proven wrong on United flight 93 after the passengers learned what had happened to the earlier doomed flights that morning.

But is it sufficient for us to recognize that a plan is no longer valid? No, because this realization needs to be effectively communicated in a timely manner such that a new plan can be formulated. Doing this requires not only courage but also a sufficient level of psychological safety within the team to reduce the likelihood of team members choosing short-term conflict avoidance over long-term pain. Naohiro Masuda’s management of the crisis at the Fukashima Daini nuclear plant in March 2011 provides a good example of how leaders might behave when planning under pressure.

Planning is essential, the value of plans is ephemeral, so let’s treat them that way!

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