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Annual Project Planning is an Anachronism!

Although its justification is usually tied to the budgeting cycle, it’s safe to say that an annual project planning cycle presents some serious flaws. 

Significant effort is expended to have each functional area come up with its wish-list of projects.  This process will usually include some quantitative and qualitative analysis to help support decision making.  After this information has been gathered, the real “horse trading” begins to identify the short list that will proceed right away as well as those projects that are still important but won’t start until resources become available.  It’s even possible that objective priorities are set for the project lists at both a corporate and functional area level.

Unfortunately, this prioritized list which is produced at great cost and elapsed time is just a model and like any model, if it is not kept current, it rapidly diminishes in value.  It is very rare to find a leadership team that when reviewing their annual project list months after its creation would feel confident that the relative priorities and completeness of the list is accurate. 

Changes in the external and internal environment drive the need for new projects, and those initiatives that had seemed worth funding earlier in the year are forgotten as new information emerges.  To make matters worse, if work allocation and tracking practices are not consistent, it’s entirely possible that stealth work on divisional “pet projects” may be taking place which would further impact the quality of the annual project list.

While it would be ideal to mature planning practices in an organization to a more dynamic approach, this type of evolution can’t happen overnight.  However, there are some incremental changes that could help to start the ball rolling.

Assuming the senior leadership team receives monthly or quarterly updates on the status of active projects, ask the following four questions once the active project status review has been completed:

  1. Are all of the pending (i.e. not active or completed) projects on the annual planning list still valid, and are there any on this list that we don’t intend to start this year? 
  2. When are you intending to launch the remaining pending projects?
  3. Are there any other projects that your staff are actively working on that are not on this list? 
  4. Are there any other projects that you intend to kick off this year, and if so, in what month/quarter? 

The answers to these questions should enable the creation of a rolling one year planned project portfolio which would become a key input into project intake.  When a new project request is submitted for consideration, if it is not on the planned project portfolio, the governance committee should be reminded of the priorities they would have been (re)set recently.  While unexpected environment changes (e.g. “Black Swans”) might still cause disruption to the portfolio, this approach might help to make this situation an exception.

Annual project planning has been the norm for a very long time so one might feel that change is not feasible.  However, organizations that won’t evolve are likely to appreciate Arthur C. Clarke’s quotation about the risks of complacency: “The dinosaurs disappeared because they could not adapt to their changing environment.”

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