The one thing you should absolutely do to become an expert planner.

In this, the final post in our three-part series on planning, I review how you can top up your expertise in planning. 

Already an expert? I also offer three tips on how you can help your team and sponsor improve their contributions to your planning and implementation efforts.  Finally, I summarize key takeaways from the series at the conclusion of the post. 

If you do nothing else...

As it turns out, simply being aware of what experts do, (as we outlined in Part II of this series) won’t ensure you become one.  Rather, if you want to build expertise in a particular area, research indicates there is one thing you must do.  All else being equal, which is a significant caveat, the people who perform the best are those who do the most practice (Swap, 2001). 

It's important to note that rarely are all things equal and recent research has called into serious question the notion that simply practicing will make us all experts, or chess masters or olympians (Macnamara, 2014).  Natural ability, intelligence and environment all play a role in achievement.  But, so does effort.  As noted in a recent New Yorker article critical of the role of practice:   "Some people are gifted... but don’t want to work forty hours a week, while some want to work more than sixty hours. That has huge implications. Chance always favors the prepared mind."

My point is this.  Everyone want shortcuts, including me.  But the reality is you will likely learn more about planning by actually doing it and paying attention, than you would from following any list of "Ten Expert Planning Hacks!" I might be able to put together (1).

It’s also true that you don’t have to go forth blindly and figure out everything on your own. In fact, you probably shouldn’t do that.  You can leverage the wisdom of experts in a variety of ways to create a type of “scaffolding” to shore up your efforts, or those of your team, while you learn and improve. 

Most of you have probably already figured this out, but there is no one thing that will help you to become a better planner.  There are a bunch of things.  I outline a few you may want to consider to help you out on your journey. 

Fake it, 'til you make it

The methods below have been found to enhance one’s effectiveness and ability to learn.  If you want (or need) to improve your planning skills and you aren’t doing these things, you may want to ask yourself, “Why not?”

1. Consistently use frameworks and tools 

Be a copycat!  Use evidence-based frameworks, tools, checklists or question sets. These can help ensure you undertake a comprehensive approach to planning, and also enhance your understanding of how planning works (Bransford, 2000).  As I mentioned in Part II of this series, experts organize information related to principles and concepts, which is exactly what frameworks provide us.  Checklists help us to implement good practice by improving our recall of all key steps (University of Leicester, 2009). 

Using these tools can give you a leg up. However, the tools themselves won’t help you if you don’t use them faithfully. You, your team, or sponsor may be tempted to 'customize' them.  I recommend you do so cautiously if you haven't already used the tools as designed.  Our judgments about appropriate adaptions of standards improve with experience.  I also recommend you use the same tools consistently over a series of planning efforts; if you regularly change methods, it can be hard to make substantive improvements.

Where to start:  If you don’t already have a preferred planning method or implementation framework, check out our free, Implementation Playbook, which includes a checklist covering all five phases of implementation. You can also leverage offerings from professional organizations, such as PMI, PRINCE2 or NIRN. However, those can be pretty dense and may overwhelm a smaller effort or one of shorter duration. In those cases, you may want to find a scalable framework or method, such as those offered by Ten Step. (When I ran an project manager development program for a previous employer, a big challenge for many aspiring PMs was appropriately scaling their efforts to their projects.)

2. Learn & Share with Others

In addition to “learning by doing,” sharing experiences with others can also boost our knowledge and performance over time.

Several studies have indicated that 30% of managerial learning comes from relationships, compared with 50% from challenging assignments and 20% from formal training (Cunningham, 2013). Research has also demonstrated a correlation between having a mentor (informal, formal or peer) and one’s level career development and satisfaction (Cunningham, 2013). Further, a mentorship relationship can assist with the development of technical skills, not just general organizational knowledge (Swamp, 2001). When asked, mentors have been found to provide meaty, technical guidance and information. So, ask!

Where to start:  Take advantage of mentorship programs or communities of practice in your organization.  If none exist, you can always create your own by identifying individuals who have the skills you are looking to build, or those in similar positions to you and reaching out to them.  (It truly isn’t hard to schedule a series of informal chats over coffee.  I'm a certified introvert and I've done this multiple times throughout my career with good, but not universal, success.)  For an external perspective, consider checking out a local chapter of a professional organization, such as PMI, or a meetup group related to the particular skill area you are interested in.  These groups may not have established mentorship programs, but most have regular in-person or virtual meetings where you can make connections with potential mentors.   Or consider leveraging your established professional network on social media, such as LinkedIn or Twitter.

3. Reflect & Seek Feedback  

"Learning without reflection is a waste," according to Confucius.  As it turns out, modern researchers have also found performance benefits from reflection.  Debriefs, both team and individual, have been shown to increase performance by 20-25% on average, but only when appropriately conducted.  Feedback has also been found, on average, to have a positive impact on performance; however, one comprehensive study found one-third of 'feedback interventions' decreased performance (Kluger, 1997). So, when seeking feedback to improve your performance, it can be helpful to know what you are asking for. 

General praise (e.g., “Great job!”), may make us feel good, but hasn’t been found to have a demonstrable impact on performance.  Rather, it's important to focus on specific tasks or experiences and what was done (task), rather than who did it (person).  It’s also generally more impactful to get feedback on how to correctly do something and the progress you've made, rather than on what was wrong (Hattie, 2007). However, some researchers have found that as expertise grows, so does the desire for negative feedback (Finklestein, 2012).

Where to start: To learn more about the impact of debriefs on performance, and how to conduct them, see my blog post on the topic.  For more on giving and receiving feedback, you may find this New York Times article helpful. It provides practitioner experiences as well as references to research.

Enough about you, here’s a few ways to help your team excel at planning. 

If you are leading a project, you will most likely need to help your team, help you.  Whether you already have in-depth experience planning, or you are relatively new at it, here are a few tips.

1. Use deadlines to develop team norms

In their research, Josette Gevers and colleagues found that "temporal planning” during early project phases facilitates team performance throughout the project (2009).  It seems that collaboratively setting and working against milestones helps teams develop a shared sense of the time required to complete tasks and sets expectations/norms for meeting deadlines.  It may also help in team coordination by “increas[ing] the degree to which team members share an understanding of each others' needs and information requirements" (Gevers, 2009).

Where to start:  Because we tend to focus more on tasks when we are close to a deadline (Waller, 2002) working with the team to set a series of deadlines or milestones during the planning phase may help them to focus and avoid getting bogged down in over-analysis or information overload during planning.  Also, keep in mind that we all tend to underestimate the effort required to complete tasks. John Beshears and colleagues report that Microsoft adds a 30-50% time buffer to programmers' estimates (2015).   If you don’t have past performance data to inform such proactive adjustments, you can debrief with the team on their performance against deadlines during and at the completion of the planning phase.  Aim to uncover specific learning and related changes to schedules that should be made for later project phases.

2. Spur conversation with a prototype

Planning can sometimes be intimidating, because there are so many unknowns.  Blank sheets of paper invigorate some people, but they freak out many others.  You can jumpstart the thinking of your team, sponsor, and other decision-makers during the planning phase by developing a prototype (i.e., a working draft or strawman).  Rather than starting from scratch, a strawman gives the team something to react to and build on.

A prototype informed by work done to date on the project can also create a sense of forward momentum. It demonstrates that you are integrating good thinking from previous efforts, not reinventing the wheel during your planning effort.  This is particularly important if there was a long decision-making process, or a previous iteration of the project for which you are now planning. 

Ensuring your prototype reflects established "givens" for the project is also smart — in fact, working from givens to unknowns is a practice common to experts!

Where to start: To create the prototype or strawman be sure it is informed by available information about the project to date — decision documents, notes from meetings, communications, emails, etc.   The goal of the strawman is to catalyze thinking on the team, not to showcase your abilities to mastermind the solution on your own. It’s supposed to be picked apart.  So, be sure to leave some blanks in it and not to get too attached!

3. Manage Up

Project sponsors, sometimes also called project owners, have a significant influence on project planning. Those who are skilled and supportive can keep the team focused and ensure the most critical aspects of planning are completed. 

However, sometimes a sponsor hasn't been assigned yet (which is a red flag), hasn’t allocated sufficient time to the project, or doesn’t fully appreciate the sponsor role.  

Research on the role of project sponsors or owners is not robust. However, one study (as cited in Anderson, 2012) found the following behaviors of project sponsors to be associated with project success:

  • Establishing communications and commitment

  • Defining and aligning the project

  • Defining project performance and success

  • Mentoring the project manager

  • Prioritizing, selecting and establishing project teams

If it seems your project sponsor may not be aware of these or other responsibilities you feel are critical for the sponsor role, be willing to manage up from the outset. Even though sponsors often hold leadership positions, to which they bring lots of experience, it's important to remember they may not be experienced in the role of the project sponsor.

Where to Start:  Managing up demands a conversation, which most reasonable people are willing to have if you ask.   Use the time to:

  • Learn about the sponsor's preferred working and communication style and share a bit about yours.

  • Understand what the sponsor's priorities are for the project.

  • Help them understand the role of a sponsor. Offer to provide a few readings on the topic or to make an introduction to someone with more experience in the role.

  • Outline, with some specificity, what you and the team most need from them. You may find my post on sponsorship helpful in this task.

Over the last decade, I've shared this article on managing up by John Kotter with more people than I can count.  The ideas outlined in it have been a revelation to many, both those new in career and seasoned professionals.  

Key Takeaways from the Planning Series

That rounds out our three-part series on planning, which provided a slew of ideas on how to successfully navigate the planning phase of your next implementation effort.  To sum up:

  • You can do both too little and too much planning. Factors that impact the optimal planning duration for your project include your experience, that of your team, and that of the organization with similar projects. Some research indicates planning should represent 20-30% of overall project duration. (See Part I).

  • Draw on the practices of experts to improve your planning approach. Spend a long time defining the problem, work from givens to unknowns, and organize information related to concepts or principles (Part II). Use evidence-based frameworks and checklists and seek input and feedback from experienced peers or mentors to help you improve. Don’t avoid planning; you really will get better the more you do it. (Part III).

  • Build support for planning by actively engaging your team in co-creating your planning approach, rather than dictating it to them (Part I). Use a strawman or prototype to create a sense of forward momentum for leadership and the team. This is particularly useful when extensive pre-work was undertaken, such as that done to support the project approval process. Use deadlines and debriefs during planning to help focus the team, develop norms, and improve coordination and understanding (See Part III).


1. If you want detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to create a project plan (or project model), you might like Don Shannon's 8-part series on LinkedIn.


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