A Man with a Plan

By Geof Lory

OK, I confess. All my 35mm slides are sorted, cataloged and cross-referenced by person, date and category. Organizing is just something I like to do. I have over 3000 slides spanning 20 years of family vacations, holidays and birthdays. Keeping this many slides in order requires some level of organization. I don't do it because I'm obsessive, I do it because I hate wasting time hunting for photographs. My wife and friends call me anal-retentive. To me, I'm making a part of my life more efficient. Because this treasure chest of memories is more than I can hold in my head, I need a way to effectively manage it.

Planning is organizing your work. The challenge in planning is determining how much is enough. You want to spend enough time planning to make sure you are effectively guiding activities and reducing ambiguity, but not so much time that the plan becomes a burden to manage and maintain. From post-it note task lists to exhaustively detailed project schedules, deciding what is the right level of planning is a continual challenge.

One of the most common questions I'm asked in my work with clients is, "How much detail should be in the project plan?" I usually respond with a clarifying question: "Why do you create a plan or schedule?" Often times their answer helps determine the level of planning, or reveals why no planning is being done. A plan must serve the planner, not vice versa.

For instance, I don't plan my vacations. Vacations to me are experiences in spontaneity. Because I don't plan them, I have to be willing to accept whatever happens. For vacations with no specific outcome in mind, this approach is fine, but I rarely want to manage a project just taking in the scenery and letting what happens happen. Too much is at stake. Size, complexity and length of the project are all typical factors that help decide how much planning constitutes enough. It is also necessary to consider the consequences of not planning.

My wife is a disciplined planner even though she has never created a Work Breakdown Structure (except for that one time when we did a WBS for Thanksgiving dinner). She doesn't work with Network Diagrams or Gantt Charts, but she does create exhaustive To Do lists. She is able to manage household projects without these tools because most of her projects are small or involve limited resources: me. Timeframes are short (hours), deliverables are easily measured (done or not done), and with a singular resource every task is sequentially dependent, finish-to-start. Under these circumstances, any more planning than a To Do list is overkill, and not worth the administrative investment. But organizing your work is not as easy as just making a list of To Dos. Even for small projects, creating a To Do list is a joint, mutually negotiated activity.

It all started when Beth joined our family as a new step mom and her first Saturday morning family chore list popped up. The night before, Beth diligently listed the next day's activities and dutifully assigned each of us our respective tasks. Confident she had covered all the things that needed to be done, she typed up the list, set it on the kitchen counter, and blissfully went off to bed.

Being an early riser, I was the first one to see the list the next morning, and I quickly moved it out of sight until Beth and I could discuss it. I hesitantly suggested to her that in order to get buy-in from her fellow team members on her plan, she might want to take a more collaborative approach. The unexpressive look on her face revealed her German upbringing, where parents told and children listened. Negotiation for consensus was something done when you bought a used car. But times have changed, and for better or worse, the girls had been raised as empowered individuals.

Over time, Beth has learned how to get what she wants by involving the girls in the establishment of household tasks, estimates, deliverables, measurements and consequences. Through this process of creating discrete tasks, the girls require less monitoring and administration. Teenagers now, the girls only require some follow up, lots of encouragement and of course monetary rewards.

Planning is a learned skill built through repetition and discipline. I do not believe it is intrinsically human. As a step mom, Beth often questions her impact and influence on the development of these types of good habits in the girls. One night as I stopped by Erika's room to kiss her goodnight, I looked at the whiteboard Erika has on the wall above her bed. (Yes, she has her own whiteboard!) She had three days before she was going out of town to visit her mom in Boston, and she had much to do before she left. She had divided the whiteboard into three columns, put one of the three remaining days on top of each column, and under each day listed all the tasks she needed to do. At the bottom of each column, she had included consequences and rewards for the completion of her To Do items. At 10 years old, she was setting goals, dividing them into activities, estimating the delivery time and establishing her own consequences or rewards.

I calmly restrained my enthusiasm and suggested to Beth that she check out Erika's board. With surprise and pleasure, Beth saw first-hand that her efforts were making a difference and she had sown the seeds of a key element for success on any project team: Planning.

[This article is third in a series. Members can review the previous articles - "Conscious Parenting Mindset" and "Are We There Yet?" - in our column archives.]
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