Project Management

Planning: The Efficiency Zone

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Planning: The Efficiency Zone

Categories: Planning

Yogi Berra was fond of saying “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”  What Yogi was getting at was that it’s a good idea to do a bit of thinking, a bit of planning, before you get started.  In the previous blog, Planning: When Have you Done Enough? we explored the factors that affect how much planning we should do.  The challenge is that the factors are qualitative in nature, requiring us to make a decision that is based on intuition.  

In this blog we explore how to increase the chance that we get as close as we can to achieving the maximum value from our planning efforts.  The following figure is organized into four planning quadrants, each one of which represents a target area for our planning efforts.  

Figure – The four quadrants of planning efficiency.

Planning quadrants

Let’s explore each quadrant.  In order from most desirable, to least desirable, they are:

  1. Q1: Efficient. The most efficient approach is to do a bit less planning than is sufficient, to undershoot the mark.  The idea is that you want to get close to sufficient and be prepared to explore the aspects of your plan later in the lifecycle when you discover that it’s insufficient.  This strategy assumes you have easy access to the subject matter experts (SMEs) and decision makers, thereby enabling you to quickly adjust and evolve your plan as needed.
  2. Q2: Comfortable. Some people will aim for this quadrant out of the believe that they need to think everything through right now, that they won’t be allowed to update the plan easily later on in the lifecycle.  Although this is comfortable for people who are new to Disciplined Agile (DA) ways of working (WoW) it is also wasteful because they’ve invested too much on the planning effort.
  3. Q3: Insufficient. This is where a lot of agile purists, or non-managers who are new to agile, end up. When planning is grossly insufficient like this your team tends to work in an undirected manner that results in a lot of rework later.
  4. Q4: Wasteful. This is where a lot of traditional managers who are new to agile WoW land. This strategy is particularly problematic in areas where there is great uncertainty, in particular software development where requirements and underlying technologies change rapidly.  Planning efforts that land in quadrant 4 are often caused by impedance mismatch between the expectations of the people doing the planning, or the expectations of the people who require a detailed plan before the rest of the work commences, and the reality of the situation on the ground.  Very often the environment has changed but the planning methodology hasn’t, so lighten up.

Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” There can be significant value in planning, but it is possible to go too far, to plan too much.  Although more research is needed in this space, it appears that the value of planning follows the law of diminishing returns – there is significant value in doing some planning, but that value quickly reaches a maximum point. Determining that maximum point is a qualitative, “gut feel” decision based on a collection of factors such as the complexity and risk of the situation, the skills and experience of the people involved, and the uncertainty that you face.  Surprisingly, the most efficient approach to planning is to aim for your plans to be slightly insufficient, to be close but in need of a bit more work when you discover that you need to work through a few more details.  I hope this blog series has been food for thought.

Posted on: November 19, 2019 06:39 AM | Permalink

Comments (14)

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Very interesting thanks for sharing

Dear Scott
Interesting perspective on the topic
Thanks for sharing

From a conceptual point of view it is quite noticeable

From an operational point of view:
What is considered "low effort" and "high effort"?
The same applies to the value.
What can we consider "High value" and "Low value?"

Interesting points...thanku for sharing

Interesting comparison between planning vs law of diminishing returns which some (especially economists) may disagree but in some extend I can certainly relate to your thought-provoking views, thank you! The law reminded me of those student years-in particular on daily consumption/spending - the end result was ‘not to spend’ once reached the max point of satisfaction, so based on the same analogy does that ‘not to plan’? Appreciate you thoughts further thank you!

-should read - - ‘does that mean ‘not to plan’?

Suzi, great question. Yes, the idea is that once you've maximized value that you're best to stop putting effort in. The more planning that you do the less value you receive. For example, yes, I can do more planning once I've gone past the JBGE point and get more benefit from doing so. BUT, I lose overall value in doing so. For example, I could do a dollar's worth of planning effort but the benefit from doing so is only 90 cents. So the benefit received went up by 90 cents but the value went down by 10 cents (1-.90).

Good reminders of the need to find that sweet-spot for planning, Scott! One leading indicator that you are reaching the tipping point towards over-planning is keeping track of the volume of key assumptions being made within fixed durations such as a day or a week. If that volume is starting to reach the inflection point on the proverbial hockey stick, it might be time to take a step back and assess if we have crossed over to the Dark Side of planning...

Thank you Scott!

I try to aim for the sufficient fence...lest waste and get more done.

Thank you for this interesting perspective. Planning is important, but you make a good point not to over-plan. This is where iterative evaluation and Agile methods can be brought in to a hybrid PMO. It allows for less upfront planning while still having a plan to overcome obstacles.

My experience is that most projects fall into Q3 and Q4. and that the experienced traditional project managers, having experienced the inefficiency of Q4 or been directed to reduce planning costs, tend to jump from Q4 to Q3 thus going from over planning to insufficient planning. In effect trading costly planning for very costly execution. It is my opinion that in the construction industry Q3 presents a much higher risk than Q4 as the execution costs are so much greater than the planning costs.I can see a great benefit operating in the Q1 and Q2 quadrants.Considering that comfort is very important to project managers, especially in the government sector, Q2 seems ideal.
My initial take was that there was only one choice, traditional or Agile. Now I see that the Agile model can be adapted to the construction industry in moderation, ie Q2.
My next consideration would be to apply probability theory to Value/Effort graph - after all, it is a bell curve

Interesting approach. I agree that there is a theoretical optimum level of planning, but what is "value" and how can it be quantified? Also, I'm not clear on the mathematical function used to represent the logic. I think another equation would better match the logic presented. Increasing value as indicated with increasing effort (sideways parabola passing through 0,0), with a step function at max value/ effort, and then a function increasing negatively (mirror of above).

Peter, it's likely not a bell curve. Any "bellness" reflects my lack of drawing skills.

Steve, this is an open research problem. I suspect an exact mathematical formula will be elusive due to the qualitative nature of the factors involved. But there is very likely several PHDs to be had if you're interested in doing such work. Good luck if so! ;-)

Thanks Scott.

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