“Plans are useless after the first shot is fired.” – Military Adage (attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte)
I’m a strong proponent of planning – project plans, budget plans, travel plans. Even weekend plans. Schedules and plans help me accomplish my goals. However, most plans have to be changed as soon as the action begins.
So, if I can’t always follow the plans I develop, then why plan at all?
Good plans include key elements that remain in place even when the plan changes, due to unforeseen events. These key elements are:
- Mission statement
- Organizational structure
- Task scheduling and prioritization
- Resource availability
- Communication protocols
Military veterans will notice the similarity of these key elements to the Operations Order, or “OPORD”. As a cadet in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (“ROTC”), I learned the benefits of a well-written OPORD. Our instructors taught us to write OPORDs for everything – weekend field exercises, daily drills, even a prank on an ROTC unit at another college. If an activity involved the unit, then it meant drafting an OPORD.
Using OPORDs became second nature. When I reported to Fort Benning in Georgia, I was better prepared than most of my fellow lieutenants. When given a situation, I could write a basic OPORD in minutes, maximizing the time to prepare for the mission.
I kept that same discipline when I returned to civilian life. Even when software tools like Microsoft Project became available, I’d still scratch out an OPORD. Over the years, I’ve modified the structure and adopted the language of the corporate world.
A mission statement should be a concise expression of the leader’s intent. The statement is specific to the project, and defines the result in measurable terms. Good mission statements also explain the purpose of the project.
Here are a few examples:
- To improve statement processing capability, the team will research, select and install new equipment and software by December 31st.
- To support the company’s marketing strategy, the team will design and implement a new website by March 31st.
- To evaluate the efficiency of the internal operation against external service providers, the team will publish a Request for Proposals, compare bids, and recommend the most cost-effective approach to management by June 30th.
Assembling and organizing a team to accomplish the goal is important, even when using members of an existing unit. For example, when selecting new equipment, the company may already have a purchasing department. The project leader may involve people from production or information technology. Management may engage an outside expert to help with the decision or implement the solution.
Once the team is assembled, the leader assigns roles and responsibilities. Everyone should understand their duties, as well as the duties of the other members. This step helps the group work cohesively, and provides information on whom to contact with a problem.
The task list should include:
- Person assigned responsibility for completion of the task
- People assigned to provide support
- Start and finish dates
- Dependency on other tasks
- Prioritization of tasks
Designating priorities at the outset helps decision making during the project. For many reasons, resources may become unavailable during the project, often at a crucial moment. Situations change due to unforeseen events. By understanding which tasks take priority, the team knows where to concentrate their efforts.
Resources consist of internal and external support, including people, budget and supplies. Some people involved with the project will be formal members of the team, while others may not. For example, programmers who are evaluating software will be part of the team. However, an analyst whose sole responsibility is ordering new servers probably won’t be a member.
Project budgets usually include both dollars and supplies. Good managers will keep an eye on both budget items, and revise forecasts regularly. As soon as it appears more resources are needed, notify senior management. Bad news never gets better. Don’t delay a message out of fear.
Sharing news is also part of the communications section of the plan. Regular meetings, project updates and report formats should be established before the work begins. Team members need to know who to contact when the unexpected occurs and the plan must be changed. The project’s motto should be: “When in doubt, communicate!”
The mission statement should be included in the regular updates from the project lead. It’s important to remind the team and senior management why time and resources are dedicated to the project. Continuous reinforcement helps support people in their efforts.
Mission, organization, tasks, resources and communication. Basic components to provide a strong foundation to your project plan, and essential to provide guidance for the team when they’re forced to deviate from the details of the plan. Powerful and critical ingredients to achieve success.