5 Project Planning Pitfalls

planning pitfalls

The original version of this post went out in my Jul’21 newsletter. Subscribe and spend less time looking for ideas.

I’d just finished running a workshop to plan our finance project. The whiteboard was covered – a lot to do.

That’s when I had the problem.

I’d just started talking about what happens next when one of the group made it clear they’d had enough of planning and just wanted to get started.

I couldn’t get him to budge. So, what was I going to do?

Before getting to that, let’s go back a step.

What is project planning?

The Project Management Institute (PMI) explains planning in detail in their PMBOK® Guide (see the end of the post for the reference). My simple interpretation of this is planning:

  • Explains how the project will produce what’s needed
  • Occurs at the beginning and throughout the project (things change)
  • Involves as much effort as needed (it’s not one size fits all)
  • Aligns the project with its stakeholders, and gives them information to use

Regarding what goes into planning, PMI has a long list of items to consider.

Stephen Barker & Rob Cole, in their book “Brilliant Project Management“, have said there are five which need to be covered in a plan as a minimum (their italics):

  1. Project objectives and supporting key requirements
  2. Project scope
  3. Major deliverables
  4. Resource needs
  5. The project schedule with key delivery dates

If I were to pick a few additional ideas from their longer list, it would be approach, dependencies, assumptions, risks and issues.

So, where does planning go wrong? My top five pitfalls are below.

Pitfall #1: Action beats planning

Here we’re trying to take a shortcut by spending little/no time on planning, with the thinking being:

  • I don’t have much time
  • I know what needs to be done
  • Those project templates are just admin stuff

It can also happen when someone isn’t used to project work. They just see a list of tasks to be done.

Pitfall #2: Working in a vacuum

The project manager builds the plan on their own, and the quality of the plan suffers.

It’s more likely to happen when the project manager is new to the organisation, and it’s a complicated environment with a lot of change going on.

Pitfall #3: Plan = schedule

Earlier I ran through what needs to go into planning. Not everyone has that understanding, and some think a schedule of tasks is all that’s required. And the more detail in it, the better.

This makes it difficult for anyone to understand the thinking underneath the schedule, so it’s hard to say whether it will work.

Pitfall #4: Paint-by-numbers

Many templates are available to help project managers, which can speed up planning and help standardise plans across projects.

The problem is planning can become a form filling rather than a thinking exercise.

For example, understanding the scope of a project is a crucial part of planning. Making general comments regarding what is included and excluded in the project can lead to misunderstandings, delays and cost increases.

Pitfall #5: Are we agreed?

At the start, I mentioned that planning should create alignment between the project and stakeholders.

Is that alignment if the plan is emailed to stakeholders asking for comments to be sent back or summarised on a few slides at the next steering meeting?

Everyone is loaded up with emails, have days packed with meetings, plus not everyone knows what to look for in a plan.

The project manager should think about how to “meet them where they are” and find ways to get the project, and its stakeholders, lined up.

So, there are my top 5 pitfalls. I’ve experienced all of them and seen others go through the same.

I hope this is a useful list for the next time you put a plan together or review one.

Now, going back to my problem of the person who didn’t believe in planning. I ended up taking a “sabbatical” until his peers had talked him around. Then I came back, and the project moved on.

PMI reference:

  • Project Management Institute “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge PMBOK® Guide” Seventh Edition. Planning Performance Domain pages 52-53
Picture of Phil Howman

Phil Howman

Subscribe to my newsletter, Working on Finance, and every two weeks get a new idea for improving how a finance function works