Embarrassing planning fails. What to do when plans go wrong

This article reflects an actual client experience…

The CEO sat at his desk and said:

“We’ve been running this program now for over a year. It’s late. We are in breach of contract and I have a very dissatisfied customer threatening legal action.

We’ve made several attempts to recover the program and rebuild customer confidence – but none of the plan resets have gone well.

We can’t explain why the revised plans only hold for a week or two and then fall behind.

I’ve just come from a meeting with the Program Director and his team and they are unable to show me numbers we can confidently deliver.

I have a major review meeting in less than 24 hours and I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t yet know what to tell the customer.”

Two years earlier, the major customer asked the company for a proposal to meet a new requirement.

Unfortunately, the proposal was based on a partial understanding of what the customer wanted. Looking back, it would have been worthwhile spending more time nailing down the requirements.

But there was another problem.

Some comparisons were also made with previous programs which were irrelevant. This meant estimates were not only naïve – but customer commitments were made far too early.

A month after the kick-off, the team was forecasting a delay and warning the position could get worse.

These delays were a direct result of a mismatch in expectations with the customer – and also because of deeply flawed approaches to estimating.

Both hurdles are impossible to jump without a supportive customer who is willing to work with you to develop alternate solutions.

So, how does a company get into this situation so soon after a program launch?

The answer to the question is wrapped up in one word – P-L-A-N.

These four letters mean different things to different people.

To some, a plan means a rough, time-phased bar chart showing key program events. To others, it is a simple spreadsheet projecting how many activities are likely to be completed in a particular timeframe.

Both approaches offer little more than a shallow outline of what might be possible – if all goes well.

Planning” is where people learn the painful difference between cutting corners and shortcuts

Cutting corners means neglecting critical planning steps and churning out plans that are bound to miss the mark.

On the other hand, sensible shortcuts, driven by experienced people, could still get you the right result.

Yet, few people understand the distinction between cutting corners and shortcuts.

Typically, plans contain lots of rough-cut activities and made-up numbers. For a reliable plan – you simply can’t cherry-pick.

There is no planning hack that allows you to skim over critical considerations like: what precisely needs to be done, how long will each activity take, what skills will you need, how many, how does your program relate to others, and how much will it cost.

Skimming is a colossal mistake.

It’s a common, but false belief, that a program moves faster if time isn’t spent on what some people consider to be “borderline” activities. They are anything but a sideshow.

Bottom line: what passes for a program “plan” in many businesses is not a plan at all. More likely, it’s a collection of hopeful targets – a wafer-thin “plan for a plan.”

This is the fastest way to lose customer trust and confidence – and cause you more embarrassment.

This is just plain “non-sense”

No senior executive should have to deal with the exasperating domino effects of planning gaffes.

It’s a widespread execution disease that demonstrates a deep lack of respect for the planning task.

There’s no sane reason why any senior manager should have to worry about annoying surprises coming out of the blue.

You want the peace of mind that comes from knowing – that when you make a customer commitment – your team can create a reliable plan and deliver it.

There’s no better way to build customer trust.

Estimates are the biggest blindspot on every program

How do you solve this problem?

Fortunately, we have a solution that cuts through all the clutter for you.

You deserve to have high confidence in your team and your program – each and every time.

Yet, many people “don’t know what they don’t know.” And the MentorBlueprint is a proven execution framework that guarantees success on your business-critical program.

It focuses on the 6 critical factors you must nail in from the start.

One of the critical six is Planning – the bedrock of every successful program.

But, more specifically, the accuracy of estimates.

Estimates are, by far, the biggest blindspot on every program. It makes little difference whether Agile or Waterfall methods are used.

Estimates are mostly based on limited information and tend to be riddled with wishes, inaccuracies, speculation, and guesswork.

But there are smart ways to significantly reduce estimating uncertainty – by using expert judgment, benchmark data, and collecting hard facts “in-flight” from the program itself – to name a few.

What does a good plan look like?

Simply put, the key elements of a good program plan should:

  • Clearly describe all the work that needs to be done
  • Spell out the time schedule and key milestones for completing the work
  • Give details of key supplier roles and specific responsibilities
  • Specify key performance criteria
  • Detail the main assumptions underpinning the estimates
  • Illustrate the skills required – by number, mix, and type
  • Define the program budget
  • Describe the program organisation
  • Explain the management control system, problem resolution process, etc

Most “plans” are very thin and only contain around 30% of these requirements.

So, get your retaliation in first – tackle all these areas in-depth – and you’ll then be in a position to catapult your program to success.

By skirting around fundamentals, you’ll spend most of your valuable time trying to manage symptoms, rather than dealing with the real reasons the problems are there. It’s not a good place to be.

Unscrambling the root causes of every difficulty is essential.

Symptoms are only a rough indication of a problem – vague and ill-defined. But, as any doctor will tell you, symptoms can lead you down lots of blind alleys, waste your time and tempt you to declare victory too soon.

The MentorBlueprintis not a list of tips, hints and tick lists – it provides practical steps on how you can shrink uncertainty and volatility in program plans.

The team were able to celebrate a roaring success

Our approach works – period. We’ve seen teams do it over 100 times in different settings, without any drama.

And here’s a truly fascinating fact: 99% of them were the same people involved in the troubled program to begin with. But, they overcame all the barriers to celebrate a roaring success. All it took was a clear roadmap and strong leadership.

So, picture a time, when all those stomach-churning feelings from needless delays are simply a memory.

Just suppose you could help your team make every program plan a “safe bet” – so you could hit all your program targets with ease.

It doesn’t happen by itself, of course.

If this is what you’re looking for, The MentorBlueprint isn’t for you.

But if you’re prepared to put in the work, it will connect you with what you need to focus on to make success inevitable.

This is our bread and butter. Fragile plans are not something you should ever have to worry about.

If you have concerns that one of your key programs may be heading towards a delay, let us help you to quickly get back in the driving seat.

So, now you know. Which route will you choose?

a) playing whack-a-mole with symptoms, or

b) eliminating the root causes of sub-par performance

Most managers choose to play whack-a-mole. So, no prizes for guessing how that program ends up.

Email me now to find out exactly how The MentorBlueprint can help you run your program like clockwork – and connect you with remarkable program success.

About the author

David Hilliard is Founder of Mentor Europe, execution specialists in strategic program execution. David’s article first appeared on LinkedIn in 2021.