How Much Project Planning Is Too Much?

Does your organization spend weeks and weeks preparing to launch a project? Does it seem like new projects take forever to get off the ground? Have you seen projects get cancelled after months of planning but no implementation activity?

I’ve seen it all and it can get ugly. As a general rule, planning and analysis should take no more than 20% of the time for the entire project. I’ve see that number go over 50% in some cases. For example, 6 weeks of planning and analysis for a 12-week project. That extra planning time delays the solution implementation and may prove to be very expensive.

I’ve even seen teams put together lengthy and detailed plans simply because they were required to do so. Once the projects got rolling, the plans were ignored and the teams operated day to day. (I don’t recommend that approach.)

The Law of Diminishing Returns

If something truly new and innovative is being done, additional planning time makes sense. Even if it’s not innovative but complex, more planning might help. But if the project is a variation of something that’s been done before, 20% is more than enough time to plan. So, why does all this extra planning occur?

Planning, like any other business effort, succumbs to the law of diminishing returns. All it means is that it’s relatively easy to throw together a high-level plan. Many of us have done it during a one-hour planning meeting. You may have 60-80% of the plan in place in a few hours or a few days at most. Now comes the hard part. The details of the plan. Ironing out the remaining 20-40% of the plan could take weeks. Is it worth it?

Plan less. Deliver more. Gather feedback and repeat. That’s how to be agile. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Prioritize. What are the most important goals for the project? What are the high-risk areas? Those items may need more planning.
  • Resist the urge to pile items onto the planning list. A long list of planning items doesn’t make a good plan.
  • Remember that a complex plan will require more effort to track, maintain and adjust, increasing the project’s administrative overhead.
  • Don’t get lost in the planning jungle. The goal is to deliver a business solution not to create a beautiful plan with lots of checkboxes, charts and graphs.
  • Fewer people will likely deliver a better plan. Involve people who have unique knowledge or skills.
  • If you’re unsure of something and cannot adequately plan ahead, allocate time during the project to adjust the plan.
  • Add new requirements, stories, etc, to the backlog as you go. You don’t have to define everything up front.

Planning is a good thing. Just don’t get carried away. You’ll end up changing it anyway.

Updated: May 8, 2012 — 10:13 pm