Project Management

Exploring the Philosophies and Principles of Planning Approaches

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Categories: Project Planning


By Lynda Bourne

Any output from a planning process is an embodiment of the planners’ fundamental principles and philosophies. They apply these principles, or approaches, to develop their plans. And different people will develop different plans to achieve the same objectives.

As early as the 1950s, James Kelley, one of the developers of the critical path method (CPM), reflected on this theme. He noted that in a class of 20-plus people learning the new CPM approach to scheduling, developing a 16-activity schedule from a set class exercise would result in nine to 10 different schedules. Clearly, different people use different approaches and assumptions.

What Shapes Approaches

The planner’s approaches may be explicitly stated, or they may be implicit and affected by:

  • The values, preferences, beliefs and culture of the organization and its planners
  • The circumstances under which planning is done

The conundrum facing organizations is deciding the best approach to develop a plan—one that’s accomplished in the most efficient way within a given set of circumstances, in a given cultural environment, that results in the best outcomes. There is no one right answer to this question, or one way of knowing if the chosen options have delivered the desired result. Each project is unique, making tests and comparisons impossible.

Some of the approaches that can be used in combination, or isolation, include:

This diagram pairs opposite approaches; it’s up to you to determine where on the continuum is best for you in the current situation.

Applying the Approaches
Each of the dimensions diagrammed has two extremes—formalized versus improvised. In some situations, one extreme or the other may be best; most of the time, a more balanced approach is likely to be better.

The challenge is understanding the choices open to you and then making informed decisions about where on each of the dimensions is best for you in the current circumstances. Making overt choices rather than just doing the normal thing will generally lead to better planning outcomes.

For example, an agile project will require a planning approach that leans toward using non-rationality, incrementalism, contingent, emergence, improvisation, utopian, pluralistic, democratic and continuous approaches to the planning activity. A traditional “hard dollar” engineering contract, on the other hand, tends to require the opposite.

My recommendation is you think through these options. This offers you an opportunity to improve your planning practice, as one approach will not suit every project and simply doing the same as last time will inevitably lead to a suboptimal outcome.

How do you think about your approach to planning?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: December 19, 2019 07:23 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Thank you for sharing various options while planning. Very informative!

Dear Lynda

Interesting is your reflection on the topic
Thanks for sharing

After looking at the diagram you shared allows us to be more aware of:
1. What approach do we normally use in our projects?
2. The most "appropriate" approach for future projects
3. The possibility of testing new approaches to projects

Thanks Luis - certainly my view is one of the 'easy' opportunities for enhancing PM performance is simply thinking about what we do and how can it be improved in the circumstances of the current project challenge (and they are all challenging..).

Informative thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic

I get excited when I see postit notes, it means something is happening.

Thank you for sharing the informative post

Great information: In some critical cases the stakeholder capacity to fund a project may influence the planning approach that would be pragmatic in fulfulling the project objective. Re-planning to improve the execution/implementation plan may be required in a pragmatic approach. Pragmatic planning may lead to some improvisation.

I agree Godfred - the 'Utopian-Pragmatic' dimension is one where most of the time pragmatism is likely to be best.

Thanks, Lynda for the insight.

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