10 top tips to avoiding creating a worthless plan
Over the past 20 years we have observed project managers using planning application software and the effect it has on the user and their community.  We have summarised, from our observations, the 10 top shortcomings that we find with currently available tools as evidence for the complete absence of leadership and (clearly not so) common sense that project managers should be demonstrating...but are not!

It is common for a plan to be constructed in haste because organisations often like to see activity (sic: not the same as progress) and possibly mistake a Gantt chart for a plan…it is not! When planning, project managers must still be focused on the correct and necessary rigour to plan - and that isn't software.  However (and I guess we have all done this at some point), the first thing we do is open a software application (such as MS Project)…but what are we really creating: a happy-day plan or a realistic one?
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1 - Visibility
It’s a fundamental challenge for project planning software to provide sufficient visibility of the schedule. No screen (not even iMac size screens) can provide enough so that it can be viewed easily. How many of us have easy access (even at work) to A1 plotters; as well as the physical space and time required to stick plots together?
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2 - Simplicity
The temptation to start by creating a Gantt chart is great, simply because it is possible! Almost anyone can generate one alone. And in doing so, miss out the critical step of gathering the right people together to form the project team that creates a meaningful WBS through a shared vision of what is being planned by consensus.
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3 - Over-complexity
Using planning software correctly can be complex. A new breed of resource, Project Planners, (usually “Software Jockeys”) has emerged that requires intensive software application training necessary to make use of the copious functionality.
Problems result from planners not fully understanding what the project team articulate. Nor can the team use the software to represent their view of the plan because it's too complex!
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4 - Planning horizons
The reality of planning is that we can only plan a relatively short distance into the future with any degree of certainty. Thereafter we are increasingly at the mercy of risk, opportunity and uncertainty. Consequently the best plans make use of planning horizons (rolling wave planning) where our view of the project end-date becomes increasingly precise as time goes by. Sadly planning software takes no account of the necessary lack of precision; referring instead to its innate algorithms to provide a (relatively) meaningless, but nevertheless specific (and much-publicised), end-date. And it is on this meaningless, computer generated end-date that project managers are held to account.
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5 - The mythical man-month
All planning software I have encountered does not (and probably cannot ever) take into account the concept of the mythical man-month. A one-person, 20 day effort task when split between four people (according to the software) takes five days. Patent nonsense (except in very rare cases). Even if Weinberg’s rules were applied, the reality depends on variables including the particular skills of the individual resources required, their availability etc.
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6 - Working calendars
Resource and working calendar functionality is available. However these views are rarely presented on the top level menu presenting the challenge of maintenance (both target and actuals) - not insurmountable but incredibly arduous, time-consuming and often, sadly, retrospectively. Return to top
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7 - Functionality versus cost
No planning software that I have yet discovered has sufficient planning aids to truly reflect the planning process. Even the generation of work breakdown structures or dependency networks are tedious and time-consuming. Risk management (the reality that turns a ‘happy-day plan’ into a real one) does not yet appear to have made its presence felt within planning applications. Though risk and opportunity databases exist within separate applications, the link to the necessary corresponding functionality (such as Monte Carlo simulations) when used in planning, has not yet arrived.
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8 - Cost versus functionality
Simplistic planning software tends to be relatively easy to start to use and reasonably priced. However it is constrained by its inability to truly reflect the real complexity of planning a project. In order to better reflect missing functionality, other software applications are required to make up the shortfall (requiring further cost and skill-sets).
By contrast 'heavyweight' project planning software tends to be extremely difficult to use without much training, but can reflect a much greater level of project reality. However its costs are commensurately high both initially and on an ongoing basis…so is it worth it?
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9 - Cost versus cost!
Reconciliation of duplicated systems has never been an easy task. And for all project planning software applications there is usually a back-office process/link to the accounting systems that is not real-time (and that is always assuming effort-data collected is complete, timely and correct). Therefore planned versus actual costs are almost impossible to report in a timely manner.
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10 - Project data quality
The overcomplexity of functionality can easily put-off the trained user, let alone the untrained one. Consequently where individual project team members are required to enter data directly, the chances of that data actually reflecting reality is inversely proportional to the complexity of the software.
Furthermore when progress is captured there can be a tendency to make use of the calculations within the software to generate information of highly dubious quality such as ‘Task A is 43.5% complete.’
Even when skilled user(s) perform regular and frequent updates, the level of effort required to capture and enter precise and timely data that truly reflect a top-quality granular plan is (currently) very significant. The question of whether it is worth retrospectively capturing such quantities of information remains a matter for conjecture.
This article was first published in full in the International Journal of Web Portals (IJWP) 2010 Issue 4 - http://www.igi-global.com/journal/international-journal-web-portals-ijwp/1113