My wife doesn’t like science fiction or fantasy movies – she finds the effort of suspending her disbelief too much to enjoy herself. I’m a little bit like this when it comes to writing project designs or annual plans – it’s just too much myth making for me to feel like it’s time well spent.
The issue is this: 98% of the relevant information we need to write a good plan is unknown at the time we write it. We more or less know where we want to go, but the map we draw to get there is based on heroic assumptions about the terrain ahead well beyond our vision. We will certainly have gathered as much information as possible to help us create this map – government statistics about the project area, analyzed results from our own community surveys and focus group discussions, documentation from meetings with community leaders, and so forth. We may even have multiple scenarios mapped out to manage multi-dimensional risks that give our map a sense of flexibility to likely changes in conditions. But even with all this, a constant stream of unforeseen events, new information, and unpredicted behavior will quickly unravel our confidence in the assumptions on which our plan is based.
There is a saying, ‘reality always wins.’ Unexpectedly heavy rains will halve the planned number of community participants in workshops over the winter. A report showing the community’s school to be lagging will suddenly shift their priority from the health sector to education. The death of a key community leader will drain the momentum out of a whole line of activities that she had championed. Election violence will create security risks that will keep staff out of the community for three weeks. A string of unannounced donor visits will throw off an entire month of work, leaving staff playing catchup for the quarter. The head office will announce changes in the financial software and chart of accounts for the coming fiscal year that will require several members of the administration team to attend training workshops, and they will then fall behind on requisitions and payments, forcing delays in planned development activities. Two staff members will give birth and three will get sick in an oddly coordinated attack on productivity right in the middle of the annual planning season. The dollar will weaken unexpectedly and suck 5% of the budget out from under foot. At times it will feel like Murphy’s Law is in effect. Reality isn’t polite, it doesn’t wait for an invitation, it barges in. Reality always wins.
We fall into the myth of the plan twice, once when we write the myth, and again when we try to manage to the myth. When we plan, we omit a reasonable cushion, making it unrealistic. When we manage, we apply an unreasonable rigidity, making it mythological. When things don’t go as planned – when reality doesn’t follow the myth – we make ever more heroic efforts to improve the planning process and increase the incentives to stick to the plan. That is, we make the plan even more detailed and rigid, falling further into land of make believe.
When Writing Plans. We write plans that fully utilize all available time and resources. This is foolish. Do we suppose that nothing will make unexpected demands on our time and resources or reduce our capacity? I did an experiment recently with a field team of development professionals. We tested their ability to plan their activities three months in advance – activities that were already based on the annual plan! They did alright the first month out, but by the time they got to the third month, over 30% of what they actually did no longer matched what they had planned to do. Yet most planning is done at least 12 months in advance, and project designs often have a 3-5 year time horizon.
Certainly we are not unaware that ahead in the darkness lurk beasts of the unexpected. Yet we are stoic in our planning, assigning all resources, finding a place for all capacity. Taking the offensive, we push hard to improve the planning process, attempting to capture the demons of uncertainty. We adopt ever more detailed DME standards and templates that implicitly assume sci-fi levels of prescience. We start the planning process earlier so that our time horizon is even further out than before. Yes, we should think things through before we act, and yes, we do owe it to our donors to give a pretty good idea about how their money is to be spent. But most of the plans I’ve read over the years evidence not so much professionalism and responsibility as collective self-deception.
When Managing Plans. Here is where the more significant problem with the myth comes in. It’s one thing to make plans for a specific number of participants, and a specific number of purchased materials, and specific costs for things, and so forth – its another to prefer the myth of the plan over the reality of … reality. That is, when we apply rigidity to the plan and provide incentives to stick to it despite new information and changing conditions, we move into a realm of unicorns, fairy dust, and bad development practice.
Here’s a typical practice: bind the budget to the plan through the logical framework, fence it in with margins on each activity line, and then make it an employee performance issue to stay within these margins. If you’re making widgets, this makes sense. Good project management is about the ability to follow a plan – accomplish scheduled activities on time and under budget … if you’re making widgets. If you’re doing community development, though, do you really want to create incentives to follow a plan that was written while most relevant information was still hidden? This may be good in some ways for the organization, but doesn’t’ necessarily make for good development practice. Why would we voluntarily put ourselves into such a straight-jacket? We need the ability to make mid-course corrections. Once the real terrain comes to light and we realize that our planned route that looked so straight and perfect on paper six months ago will actually take us across a mountain range of under-capacity, across a gorge of community disinterest, and through a labyrinth of political complexity, we will be sorry to have bound ourselves to the path.
Since I’ve been on the subject of ‘facipulation’ in my last two posts, it’s worth noting that binding development facilitators to a plan is a pretty good way to get them to start facipulating their discussions with the community. Ignoring new information from the community is a key facipulation skill. Finding ways to push off dealing with new events and conditions is too. Armed with the ability to say, ‘well, it’s not in the plan for this year, but we can talk about it in the next planning cycle’ is a great way to side-step reality when your organization’s plan is out of step with the community’s preferred future. Hear that? That’s the sound of your project stepping a rung or two down somebody’s participation ladder.
Good project management in this context requires a team, structure, and policy environment that encourages adjustments to new information and events. It requires creativity, agility, flexibility, and very good communication between staff, volunteers, community members, and donors. In mythological terms, we should prefer the creative agility of Hermes over Odysseus’ lashing of himself to the mast.
How Then Shall We Plan?
A good plan has four essential elements that define both how it is written and how it is managed.
- Shared Objectives. The community, the development organization, and donors should agree on the general objectives of working together. Not to be confused with the activities that will move them all toward these, the objectives describe the changes a “successful” project would contribute to bringing about. This is the core of the plan – to work together to make this preferred future a reality.
- Agreed Process. The partners should also agree how they are going to move forward toward these objectives. This includes a starting set of activities, but it allows for some of these to be dropped and for others not yet imaged to be included as future conditions become known. It also includes, perhaps more importantly, a process for working together – how, who, and when will the partners negotiate the next steps together; how will they deal with new information and events; what will the process be for monitoring progress; and how will decisions be made about the scarce resources available to the partners as they move forward.
- Guiding Principles. A set of principles that will guide decisions as tradeoffs and hard decisions come down the road. What are the values and principles against which two directions at a fork in the road should be considered.
- An adaptive Leader with Decision Rights to Lead its Implementation. I confess I came back and added this last one after I had already published this blog post, but I’m on a learning curve too, so bear with me. None of this works if you haven’t got the right person at the helm, who is able and empowered to see and interpret new information affecting the project and then make adaptive decisions that keep the project moving toward the shared objective, regardless of whether or not it takes the activities off course in terms of the plan. Obviously, such decisions often have budgetary consequences and will necessarily involve the partners, but project managers are too often placed in straightjackets or treated like administrators. Recruit and hire a skilled and experienced adaptive leader, and then empower that person to be an adaptive leader to keep things truly on track.