Project Planning's Delicate Balancing Act

Apr 17, 2014
5 Min Read

Take a look at most current research on the most necessary business competencies and you’ll see adaptability. In most organizations, conditions change on a dime and you must be prepared to shift course accordingly. So although some long-range planning is still desirable, incremental planning is equally if not more important.

According to Patti Johnson, author of the new book Make Waves, incremental planning is:


  • Future focused
  • Flexible
  • Short horizon, with long-term goals in mind
  • Collaborative

Incremental project planning assumes you make adjustments as you go and still reach your overall goals, even if they change over time. It’s a fine line to walk, though, between having no plan and having so much structure that you can’t react nimbly in the face of unpredictable challenges.

I recently walked this line myself when I engaged in a research project that was impacted by evolving market conditions. On the one hand, we had to develop a clear hypothesis, a relevant audience analysis, and a sound methodology. But on the other, we knew that our results might be unexpected and affect the recommendations that would be derived from the research.

Even while our data collection was in process, we weren’t entirely sure of our final product. We knew what we needed to accomplish from a business perspective, but we didn’t know how it would look just yet. Some of the higher-ups were more comfortable with this approach than others, but we were able to share just enough concrete planning to satisfy them.

Johnson suggests these steps to infuse your project management with more incremental planning.

Have very clear outcomes

Even if you eventually move in another direction, know where you are headed. Keep your goals simple and achievable and revisit them frequently.

Balance specific plans with flexibility

Plans are essential in order to be in a state of perpetual action. However, making changes to plans doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake or taken the wrong path. You aren’t necessarily changing your destination, just how you get there.

Take frequent looks at the future

Focus on today, but always keep the end state in the forefront of your mind. The most important conversation between you and your team members starts with: “Based on what we have learned and where we are going, what adjustments are needed?”

Begin without all the answers

You will not have everything figured out when you initiate your project, and that's okay. Being open to various possibilities will help you attract support for your project and allow it to reach its full potential.

Remember the human side of planning

Effective project management is not just about deliverables. Bringing people with differing perspectives into your planning process can inform the need to make necessary changes.

Keep a Goldilocks mindset

Incremental planning should be neither too hot nor too cold. Your goal is a flexible, thoughtful, and organized path that involves others who are as passionate about the direction as you are. Avoid flying by the seat of your pants on one extreme and an overengineered, inflexible plan on the other. Find the happy medium and feel comfortable there regardless of your own personal preferences.

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