Posted by: projectsinpractice | October 9, 2012

It’s Just a Plan

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Bonnie here: Project managers love to plan. One of my favorite planning quotes comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower: Plans are nothing; planning is everything. Sometimes even the best project managers fall in love with their plans. When they get too committed to those plans, however, they lose the ability to respond nimbly to the curve balls that are  thrown in every project. Nimbleness is one of the keytools in a project manager’s toolkit, because it helps get projects done successfully.

The ephemeral nature of plans is easy to remember on large projects. But an overzealous adherence to a plan can sneak up at any time. For example, I realized recently that I was clinging irrationally to a plan I made. This plan revolved around one of my projects, ironically, the recording of the movies for one of my courses, Managing Small Projects (due out Q4 2012).

In early September, I had constructed a tight schedule for myself. I was juggling several small projects: finishing work on QuickBooks 2013: The Missing Manual, recording for my course, a conference for my fiction writing, and some fun to sharpen the saw. Here’s what it looked like:

Sept 6: Finish author review for QuickBooks 2013: The Missing Manual.

Sept 7-9: Attend Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference

Sept 9: Fly to California

Sept 10-12: Record Managing Small Projects course at’s studio in Carpinteria.

Sept 13: Fly home and go to Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers meeting.

Sept 14-16: Drive to Steamboat Springs and carouse with friends.

But things didn’t go as I had envisioned. (Somewhat off topic, a fun example of plans getting derailed is a classic Preston Sturges movie, Unfaithfully Yours.)

Sunday morning, September 9, I was pestered by a slight dry cough. By Monday morning, that had transformed into a sore throat, hacking cough, and what I think is called post-nasal drip. We spent five grim hours recording atrociously nasal and unenergetic audio voiceovers.

After twelve hours of sleep and a lot of cough and cold medicine, I went in Tuesday morning, and the recordings were even worse. By 10:30 am, my producer got out the hook and yanked me off the microphone. He asked me if I could stay an extra day or two. My initial response was “I can’t! I have all these things I need to do.” After all, I had a plan, a schedule to follow…But I went back to the hotel, stumbled around the Internet for an afternoon, and got another marathon night of sleep.

Wednesday morning, I felt a little better, sounded much better, and my brain was working once more. I realized that the Mystery Writers meeting wasn’t a must-do–as much as I wanted to be there. What’s more, with the drubbing the cold was giving me, I wouldn’t be doing much carousing over the weekend either. The project manager in me had re-awoken. I told my producer that I could stay to record the course. (We actually started over from the beginning; and it was so much better the second time around.)

I even came up with a revised plan that accomplished some nice-to-haves I didn’t expect. I suggested that I fly home on Saturday so we didn’t have to guess when we would finish on Friday. Then, I could leave whenever and stay with friends who live in LA. Sure enough, we recorded Wednesday, Thursday, and wrapped up mid-day Friday. I drove to LA, caught up with my friends Friday night, and had a shorter drive to the airport Saturday morning.

In the case of my head cold, Helmuth von Motke the Elder’s planning quote might be the most appropriate: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. While my original plan didn’t survive contact with a cold, the revised plan resulted in much better recordings and a wonderful visit with friends I thought I wouldn’t see.

Even though it’s “just a plan,” a plan is still essential to every project. Plans are meant to change, and part of the challenge (and fun) of a project manager’s job is to think of those curve balls as opportunities to respond well and perhaps even achieve something better.

Talk back: Have you ever fought changes to a plan only to discover that the revised plan turned out to be better than the original?



  1. Bonnie, I watched the 2006 movie Annapolis last weekend about a young man working his way through school at the Navy. His sports coach had a catchy phrase about plans. It came from Mike Tyson apparently. Everyone has a plan until they get hit.

  2. A really nice movie, starring Martin Sheen, The Way, was a tale about plans not going the way one expected. A gregorian chant music came on the radio just now, and it reminded me of the movie.

  3. Danah Boyd, published an interesting account of difficulties in organizing a conference. You can read all about it, at the blog entry linked.
    What her blog entry underlined for me, was where diverse ‘groups’ are involved, moving or trying to move in different directions, where communications go haywire, a lot of resources and time, and effort can be burned up quickly, to no avail. All the best, B.

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