Right-Sized Planning

In a previous article, we covered team thrashing, when priorities are changing too fast, and work keeps getting dropped and picked up again.

How can a company avoid thrash?

Planning Everything

One answer would be to stick to a plan. People instinctively turn to planning when execution starts to get chaotic. We take comfort in plans. They create a sense of certainty.

Teams will often start planning everything. The sense of safety that a plan gives can easily lead to planning, in detail, work that is 3 or 6 months away, or more.

Unfortunately, reality gets in the way of these plans ever happening.

Priorities, no matter what we do, have a way of changing in response to reality.

And even when they don’t change, our plans get stale. They do this because while we are waiting to carry out our plans, the world is moving under our feet. The terrain of the work changes as other plans are carried out and executed. The longer between the plan’s creation and execution, the less actionable it will be.

The time spent creating detailed plans for things that never happen is waste.

Waste is when an action does not result in any persistent value or learning.

While the process of planning may lead to learning, by the time execution comes around, the team likely doesn’t remember it very well. Or key members quit. So now we don’t have much learning or much action.

Avoiding Planning

When you realize that over-planning is a waste, you naturally gravitate towards the smallest amount of planning possible. This means planning exactly what’s necessary for the next deliverable.

This could be as small as a ticket or an epic.

This is the philosophy that Agile Development often embodies on teams.

“We’re agile! We don’t plan! We can turn on a dime!”

While this is true, it’s hard to say what that turning gets you if you don’t know where you’re going. The ability to make quick course corrections is most beneficial when you have a destination in mind. Otherwise, you might be going in directions that aren’t really helping you. (Though if you have no goals, how can you really say what that means? I suppose staying in business may be a lowest common denominator here).

But hey! At least you’re not wasting all that time planning for things that never happen!

Time-Integrated Planning

If you want to know where you’re going and not waste time planning for things that don’t happen, how do you proceed?

Do you simply have a high-level vision and then make immediate plans along the way?

That may be useful if your vision is not too large, but for almost anything beyond a few months of effort you will have major initiatives to support your major goals, and they will have to build on one another.

To support this kind of planning, you will have to have an idea of the steps in between.

It turns out, this is not hard to do, if you realize that this is what you’re doing.

You define the major steps. You occasionally re-evaluate the major steps to make sure they are still the right steps.

As those steps move forward in time, you define them with increasing levels of detail. Only when the team runs out of work to do on the current thing is it time to break the next step down into further levels of detail.

Why do we wait until the team runs out of work (or at least close to that)?

Because if the team still has a lot of work to do, the time between planning and working is too large to make the plan necessarily useful. So it will likely be somewhat wasteful.

The team then creates plans at the level of definition that is actionable.

A long-term plan is actionable insofar as it defines the steps in between now and the goal. Large initiatives in support of that goal help guide planning projects. Project planning guides the definition of the work. And the work can be done.

As David Allen points out in Getting Things Done, you can’t do projects. You can only do actions.

So wait to plan your actions until you are living in the context required to do an action.

You use time as a distance to the potential actions to determine the correct level of planning and definition of actions that will be done, and you defer any planning that is not very likely to become well defined.

More Hidden Costs

It turns out that over-planning has another hidden cost.

When you are creating detailed plans for work that is too far away to actually be done, you will need the input of the engineers to create those plans.

Those engineers happen to also be the exact same constraint in the middle of every path that needs to be executed.

Using engineers working on critical-path bottleneck work to plan work that is not the next thing is wasteful, and impacts the output of the entire organization.

Bottleneck resources tend to also get the most complaints, and yet because of the slow throughput, there is a temptation for other parts of the company, in their efforts to feel productive, to keep producing materials that require input (and thus time) from those engineers.

Avoid waste

The principle for optimizing planning is the same as the principle for optimizing any kind of work.

Avoid waste. Focus on what’s creating value. Pay attention to how time is actually spent, and if it is being spent on what makes the difference.

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