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There are a bunch of things that make project management tougher, riskier and (much) more stressful than it needs to be. I have a mental list of things that I could happily live without. Doubtless, you have one, too. Chances are that our lists are strikingly similar.

However, there’s something out there that’s more infuriating, unbearable, and threatening to project manager sanity, and project manager success, than anything else.

This thing is more dangerous than trying to share project staff with a short-tempered line manager who doesn’t play well with others.

This thing is more frightening than having a project sponsor email you at 5:30am and start the conversation off with: “I just had this incredibly vivid dream of what we should start doing on the project…”

This thing is more intolerable than being told that your robust online project management software consists of: email, spreadsheets, oh, and you’re welcome to use the whiteboard in the conference room if you want (just make sure you erase it when you’re done).

So what is this terrible thing?

I’ll wait until you remove any children from the room. Better to ask anyone with a faint heart to leave as well.

Here we go: It’s the persistent belief that project planning is a project management step. I, and every project manager who has lived through the damage caused by this crazy myth, assure you that it’s NOT.

That is, project planning isn’t a step that comes after “project initiation” or “project team assembly” or anything else. It’s not a linear stop on the project management roller coaster. Why? There are two reasons that are so valuable, that they should be affirmations that greet you every morning and before you go to bed at night:

1. A credible dose of project planning must take place BEFORE the project even begins to call itself a project.

And by ‘credible’ I mean that there has to be a contentious effort by key stakeholders to ensure that the project needs to exist, that it has a good chance of surviving if/when it exists, and that there support systems in place to keep its gains (i.e. the product of the project) alive after it stops existing.

If this credible amount of planning isn’t done before the project starts to take its first steps (i.e. team assembly, etc.), then the consequences can and often are severe. It’s profoundly better – read: cheaper, simpler, safer, happier – to do this initial planning at the earliest possible stages, than to try and retrofit it into an existing project.

Naturally, you won’t have the detail you need to develop a robust project plan – and that’s not what you’re doing. Rather, you’re feeling for the “four corners” of the project. Once you have a general sense of where they are (and that there ARE four corners), you’re ready to go into your beloved project management steps.

2. Project planning must take place THROUGHOUT the project.

Again, we return to the mistaken belief that project planning is a step. This idea is neat, tidy, and it’s fun to take a big, thick red mark and put a giant “X” through the words “project management plan” on a to-do list. Unfortunately, reality isn’t that convenient. At least not in project management.

Rather, planning is an ongoing commitment that must be integrated throughout the project. Things change. Opportunities emerge. So do risks. Projects that survive in scope, on budget, and on time (i.e. less than 10% of them!) are flexible enough to respond to inevitable changes. If you believe that project planning is “done” and somewhere in a file or a notebook, you won’t be able to adjust – because you’ll be locked into your plan.

Now, with these two points being said, let’s avoid creating a new misunderstanding: that you don’t need to have a comprehensive project plan. Yes, of course that’s required. And so the advice here isn’t to do away with a project plan. It’s that project planning, as a concept and as an activity, doesn’t fit neatly into a “step”. Arguably, you’re never done planning until the project is over (and like some horror movies, you really have to make sure it’s over before you assume it’s over…).

So the next time you come across a nice, tidy project methodology that implies or sometimes even outright claims that project planning is a step that comes somewhere after project initiation and before project close-out, take a deep breathe, squeeze your stress ball, and remember the battle-earned wisdom above: Yes, project planning is a critical part of a project. Yes, there is a tangible thing called a project plan that will go into your project management software. But project planning is not a step, and you’re never done.

(And while you’re being proactive, maybe it’s time to order more stress balls.)