The New Plan for Project Plans: Less Planning

When is project planning a hindrance to a business? When it comes at the expense of real engagement. Seth Kahan explains, in this excerpt from his book, Getting Change Right.

[Editor's Note: Seth Kahan has been an expert blogger at FastCompany.com for several years now. We were thrilled when his posts landed him a book deal. Below is an excerpt from his book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out.]

Project Flow Diagram

The biggest drain on momentum and brainpower in change efforts today is obsession with the project plan. I have seen more projects flounder and die because leaders and consultants are hammering out finely detailed project plans rather than engaging people.

As my friend Larry Forster, staff engineer at Shell Exploration and Production Company, says, "The good news about a project plan is that you get what you plan for. The bad news is that is all you get."

I asked Larry what he meant by that and he explained: "Project planning is a good and necessary aspect of leading change. But if you stick too close to it, there are many wins you won't realize because they are not programmed in. The biggest risk is the support of the people who you have to have on board to make change stick. Project plans don't usually have an allowance for enthusiasm or fortunate synchronicities. Yet these are some of the most powerful enablers of long-term success."

People create project plans for many reasons. Here are three I see often:

    Getting Change Right
  • It is tempting to imagine how you will create change. The downside is that people get sidetracked into imagining it rather than doing it.
  • It is challenging to engage people. This requires good interpersonal skills and a willingness to repeatedly open up messy conversations. Many technical experts prefer to avoid this and instead work solo or with a small group of like-minded colleagues, on dependencies, resources, and time lines.
  • People often confuse building a mental model with the real thing. They think, The more we work on our plan, the more we are getting done. Until the rubber hits the road, you have accomplished nothing.

It's true that a project plan is useful and even necessary in most situations. It's a question of appropriate emphasis. When I am after change, I want to make things happen—get results, reap rewards. This happens through people, interactions, networks of conversations, and people working together.

Project planning is a support process. Engagement is the main event. It's where people shift attitudes and behavior. You do not want the project planning to occur at the expense of engagement, replace conversation, delay interactions, or exclude participation. But the obsession with project planning is a difficult habit to break. It's so much easier than to go out and start another conversation with someone important, someone you respect, who has never heard about what you are doing and will ask a lot of fundamental questions when you don't really have the answers. Yet that is exactly what's needed. You need to become expert at getting people involved in co-creating the future, jump-starting bold conversations that draw people in, and triggering professional excitement.

Excerpted from Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, released this week by Jossey-Bass.

Seth KahanSeth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His Web site is VisionaryLeadership.com.

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