A major complaint in the project planning process is that the document that results ultimately sits on the shelf collecting dust. If the project team ignores the plan, then all the work that went into creating it has gone to waste, and the project is usually less successful than it could otherwise be. How can project managers ensure that the plan is actually implemented?
Improve the planning process
A major reason plans are left on the shelf is because they are not realistic or practical. It is one thing to devise a plan sitting in the office, but if the plan does not reflect practical realities then neither full-colour graphics nor professional binding will save it.
Therefore, during the planning process you should involve those who will actually be implementing it once the project kicks off. Include representatives from the different functions involved and make sure the plan reflects the future collaboration that will be necessary. Throughout the planning process, ask your team members whether the plan is realistic – a simple "can you really do this?" upfront can save a great deal of misunderstanding later.
Standards like ISO 21500 help ensure that you cover all the bases in the early stages, too. Especially in larger organisations and with larger projects, using a general standardised structure makes planning more a matter of "filling in the blanks."
Ensure the plan is well-documented and widely distributed
Everyone should be invited to give their feedback during the process of reviewing the plan before final approval, and when the plan is finished, everyone should have copies. The plan will see far less use if it is one book on the shelf of the project manager than it would if the front-line people have it and understand what the end goal of the project is. Front-line employees working in the dark are a major implementation mistake.
Measure progress on an ongoing basis
It’s extremely easy for managers and employees alike to get tied up in the day-to-day problems of business life that they end up losing sight of their long-term strategic goals. If this happens, the plan goes back on the shelf and is forgotten.
If possible, it is useful to have designated "checkers" that verify people are completing their tasks and sticking to plan. This can also mean defining specific "champions" for each strategy or action – these are people who are responsible for making sure specific actions get done, and they themselves should be accountable for the success of their tasks.
Alternately, consider assigning responsibility for tasks to pairs of people. Each partner commits to helping the other finish tasks on time, and ensures that at least one person always has their head "above water" at any given time.
Regular updates should be a core part of your implementation. Depending on the project, this may mean reviewing progress on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even quarterly basis. As things move forward, seek to reward your employees for their successes.
You must also measure your progress on a larger scale. What you can’t measure, you can’t manage. Your project plan, if it is well-developed, will identify specific places you will be measuring progress. You must then actually follow through and measure these things!
Remember your plan is a living document
In the military they say that no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, and something similar is true in business. You should be prepared to change strategies and tactics based on the project’s "on the ground" realities. The end goal may be the same, but if you do not keep your plan up to date to reflect the various problems and solutions you’ve faced and devised, it will become a "dead" document – and go back to the shelf.
Project plans should seek to be "proactively reactive". Move ahead with the plan as you’ve designed it, but be prepared to change things where necessary.
Plans may have an effective lifetime ranging from days to years, but the important thing to remember is that they must represent the shared vision of where everyone on the project is headed and what they require to get there. Of course, everyone is always short on time and money, but being "too busy" to update the plan often reflects deeper issues that are revealed, and healed, by bringing them out on paper.
Image source: Mehri Doyle (Flickr)