The art of lean planning

It’s 2018 and we still see companies making upfront project plans. JIRA backlogs, Excel and MS Project. These plans are made at the time we know nothing about the problem and we’re taught to stick to them. It’s really superduper important that we stick to the plan, guys!

You can’t be lean and have an upfront detailed plan at the same time. Pick one. Be an innovator or a crocodile.

The main idea behind a lean approach is that you get feedback constantly and adapt accordingly. What’s the point of spending time on a plan when you know it’s going to change all the time?

Planning is making a set of guesses about future events.
“With what we know now, we guess we can build this by next month.”

When that plan turns out to be wrong (and it will), that’s a good thing! It means you’ve learned a lot and have a better understanding of the solution. You’re adapting.

I’m not saying plans are worthless. They are just not as valuable as most managers think they are. Here are some good guidelines for a quality plan :

Make it lean

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, Mike Tyson famously said. Being lean means your plan needs to be lean too. If your Gantt chart is the Bible and can only be changed by upper management in case of calamity, you’ve lost from the get-go. Don’t set yourself up for failure from day one.

Make it fast

Since we agree that the plan is going to change constantly, don’t make it difficult to change. Those hand-crafted Excel mosaics are a mess when you want to quickly change them. A whiteboard is a better planning tool than JIRA. It’s fast and flexible. A plan is a tool. If you can’t throw it away at the drop of a hat, you’re too attached. It’s just a plan, you’ll make a new one.

The team owns the plan

If your team members can’t change the plan,  why should they care about it? If it’s not a tool for them, it’s a burden. If everybody makes the plan together,  you have unanimous buy-in. That’s what you want,  right?

Make it short term

You are not Madame Soleil.  Your team is cross-functional but clairvoyance is not one of their skills. Your plan should reflect that. Nobody takes a 2-year plan seriously. Nobody. On most projects, you can’t predict what will happen 3 weeks from now. That’s OK. Lean, remember?

A sharp head, a fuzzy tail.

The closer events are, the more clear they become. The head of your plan can be detailed. You can even have full-blown User Stories. Events that don’t happen in the near future are unpredictable and putting time into detailing them is Muda. Analysing and estimating JIRA tickets that might only be developed 6 months from now is crazy! Stop that!

People love awesome products, but they don’t care about the tools that went into building them. Nobody looks at the Sagrada Família and wonders about the scaffolding that was used to erect the cathedral. None of your customers will look at your software and wonder how you planned it…