How to discuss ambitious project plans

How to discuss ambitious project plans

picture from here

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” — Warren Buffett

There is a time on most projects, where the project plan is going wrong and the deadlines won’t be met.

The pressure is to change the plan to deliver on time, add more people, work faster, pull out all the stops and hit the date.

The simple response is to agree with the new plan, try to implement it and see if it works. This is the answer everyone wants to hear, particularly leadership.

But is this the best thing you can do for the project?

Should you try and deliver a plan that won’t work or should you create a realistic plan that can be delivered?

There was a saying

“No one got fired for buying an IBM”

Let’s create a similar saying :

“No one got fired for going along with the updated aggressive plan”

The problem with agreeing to a plan that won’t work, is it causes more problems. Plans comprise many dependent actions and if one part of the plan is late, the project is late. The project delivers when its last dependent activity is complete.

or to put it another way ,

The project can deliver at the speed of its slowest team

What can you do?

Most people think of control as telling people what to do, but you don’t need to tell people what to do, to change their ideas. You can change people’s ideas by asking them questions, highlighting areas and helping them to come to new conclusions.

In this situation, we want to clarify if this plan will work or if it’s a hopeful plan. Hope is not a strategy, but it can keep everyone following a plan that work.


Let’s take a standard project scenario

We are developing a feature to deliver into production, to create the feature we need to

  • Create requirements
  • Refine requirements
  • Create user stories or FDD
  • Customer signs off User stories or FDD
  • Development feature
  • Test feature

For just one feature there are multiple activities, people and decisions that could go wrong. You always have unforeseen problems that could occur.

It takes more effort than we estimate to deliver one feature, which

Adding more people

Adding more people rarely makes the project go faster, particularly in the short term. Adding more people to a project is like adding more people to a meeting, it doesn’t make it go faster and adds a communication overhead.

A meeting with four people decides more effectively than a meeting with 20 people.

Why adding more people to a project doesn’t make it go faster

The outside view

Aggressive plans are built on hope, highlight this by asking questions

What estimates is this plan built on?

We want a plan that’s built on estimates, not just dates.

The plan should be built on the individual actions needed to complete the work and on estimates of the current team doing those tasks.

Take earlier similar examples of feature earlier on the project and compare its timelines to see if they are sensible.

“Previous feature B, took 3 months to get to production. What are we doing now that means we will deliver this in 2 months”

Take the previous time and ask why it will be different?

What is the project going to do different to deliver it quicker? The project should be able to justify the increased speed of delivery, otherwise they are deluding themselves and creating a plan that won’t happen.

What needs to happen

Switch the focus on what needs to happen for the plan to be successful and ask the question.

What needs to happen for this plan to be successful?

Focus on the deadlines people need to met?

What can’t happen e.g. any unexpected problems

Decisions which need to be made and by when

Create alternatives

Time is a tool, an effective way to use it is to create alternate plans whilst you have time and upfront. This helps you prepare. When you need to act under pressure, you don’t need to think up an alternative plan on the spot because you did it when you had more time.

The army and marines create a PACE plan

PACE plan

Primary plan

Alternative plan

Contingency plan

Emergency plan


When a project goes off track, there is pressure to create a plan to put it back on track. Options should be considered but its important to create a realistic plan because another plan failing will cause morale to drop.

Most people can sense if a plan is unrealistic, it drains morale. A realistic plan can boost morale because it shows how the project and people on it can overcome problems and get back to the plan. People enjoy working on a successful project

Help everyone on the project create a realistic plan by asking the right questions and highlighting the areas where it may go wrong.

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