Time Is the Enemy

time'Trust the plan and the process behind creating one, even if it doesn’t give you a date you like’. That is a direct quote from a Senior Project Manager within an asset management firm, following an operational project meeting. The plan in question had initially proposed an 18-month project duration. Unfortunately, the approvals process required a 12-month timescale, so the plan had to be revised to fit and, inevitably, the project took 18 months to deliver as originally estimated.

The relationship between time, quality and cost must be clearly understood when planning any programme of work. Put simply, you cannot control all three elements, so you need to prioritise the one or two that matter most and see how that impacts the third—then compromise.

Arguably, the worst component to try and dictate is time. Give a project a ‘hard stop’ date that is immovable and you either have to provide unlimited access to resources whenever required during the project, or accept that the quality of the deliverables will not be what you want, or a combination of the two. Of course, there are some activities that simply cannot be speeded up by throwing more resources at them.

The dictionary defines a plan as ‘a detailed proposal for doing something’ or ‘an intention or decision about what one is going to do’. Note the future tense: a plan is what we intend to do based on our predictions of the future. The plan is therefore our ‘best guess’ at the required sequence of tasks, dependencies, work effort, resource requirements and events that are needed to get us from where we think we are now to a vaguely described end-point, with little or no knowledge of what else might arise in the meantime that could impact the plan. In the area of investment management, these unknown factors, such as new regulation, can have an immense impact on project delivery. It should therefore be of no great surprise that plans and reality begin to diverge. The longer the period covered by the plan, the greater the divergence will be.

Obviously we do need to plan, but we need to be realistic about what a plan is and how we use it. Chiefly, the lessons are:

1.    If the plan doesn’t produce the ‘right’ cost, end-date or resource requirements, that doesn’t automatically mean that the plan is wrong.

2.    A plan is an attempt to predict the future and so will not be 100% correct. 

As the celebrated German military strategist and chief of staff of the Prussian army, Helmuth von Moltke, once noted: ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’. Whilst he didn’t identify it as such, one of the main enemies of any plan is time itself.