Why do things not go according to plan?

To Fail to Plan is to Plan to Fail

We all know the expression, ‘to fail to plan is to plan to fail’, so generally people who don’t want, or can’t afford, to accept the risk of failure make sure that they plan adequately. This could be a simple as making sure you leave the house in time to drive to the station to catch a train at a certain time or it could be as complex as a major engineering or business change programme with 1000’s of lines of schedule and detailed activity calculations based on past performance.

A structured plan is a great place to start, breaking down each tangible deliverable into ordered activities with a logical precedence, then estimating activity durations based on the level of resource available and its productivity. We perform add risk contingencies, look at critical paths, perform schedule risk analysis run monte carlo simulations, look at s-curves and then say that we have a level of confidence, say 90% in delivering to a certain date. We track progress against the plan and using Earned Value Analysis we make predictions of completion dates based on performance to date.

The problem is that there are two main categories of activities in our plans, those that are totally certain, you might say governed by laws of physics and those where there is a degree of uncertainty and it is the latter category where we concentrate our schedule risk analysis.

The Unknown Unknowns

We do all of this planning and analysis and yet still things don’t go according to plan.

Let us consider an extract from a speech by the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld which at the time was considered a bit of a riddle.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

United States Secretary of DefenseDonald Rumsfeld

Surprisingly this really is a tightly structured statement, it sounds like a riddle, a tongue twister, almost gobbledegook, but it moves logically around three states of a two by two matrix of the combinations of things that ‘we know’ or ‘don’t know’ and that we ‘are aware of’ and ‘unaware of’.  If you watch the video you can see Rumsfeld pointing in the air to the quadrants with his finger as he goes through them.

However the two by two matrix we couldn’t see has a 4th state which he doesn’t mention at all, the bottom right quadrant, the things ‘we know’ about but we are ‘unaware of at the time’, you might say ‘the things we overlook’ or quite simply ‘forget’. Let us use some short hand that reinforces the quadrant we are talking about. Simply working from the bottom left clockwise, KK, KU, UU and UK.

The Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns

In any undertaking is that there are always  UU’s ‘Unknown Unknowns’, these are the things that come up and bite us as a complete surprise in projects, programmes and indeed life.

They are impossible to plan for except by adding copious amounts of time and financial contingency into a programme because things might happen, this is a luxury businesses and programmes can ill afford and unless justified such contingency will get removed to be competitive and win and logically you can’t justify what you don’t know.

It is easy to assume that these UU things are the major causes of programme and project failure. ‘If only we had known that was going to happen we could have done xyz.’ The great thing about UU’s is that it’s very easy to get consensus that this was the cause of the failure since by definition nobody was to blame… nobody knew, nobody could have possibly known or done anything about it.

The Things we know but Overlook (UKs)

Interestingly the far more prevalent cause of failure in human endeavour is the one category that Rumsfeld missed out. The things we know about but we simply didn’t take into account.  These things are generally accountable to an individual or to a group, of course when the failure occurs those accountable tend to try to shift it to the more excusable and anonymous UU category. Another simple way of viewing a UK is a mistake or ‘cock-up’ but sometimes for political reasons it can even be deliberate.

We do not plan for mistakes, all we can do is ensure that there is plenty of independent cross checking and that there is good governance in place to achieve this.

Take a look at the videos of the Apollo moon landing (http://gu.com/p/2teph/tw ) and listen to the activities in mission control, the number of cross checks and independent multiple approvals for each step of the mission is all an attempt to ensure that obvious steps or actions are not missed.

To Err is Human

So the reason projects, programmes and even your journey to work doesn’t go according to plan is because human beings are fallible, they overlook things, they forget things that they know and they misinterpret data, miscalculate and sometimes, for a political end, deliberately overlook pertinent data.

The only safeguard against this type of error and eventual failure is the cross check. Two heads are better than one, ensure that someone else is responsible for checking, at least you reduce the likelihood.

6 Steps to Stay on Plan – Remember to Cross Check

  1. Make sure your plan itself has integrity, that its structure matches the work and that logical precedences are in place. Cross check it with other planners.
  2. Make sure your activity durations are cross checked since this is a potential source of UK errors.
  3. Make sure you look at uncertainties, perform 3 point estimates and model the outcome, check that it makes sense as the modelled durations change you will shake out potential errors in the logic.
  4. Track your progress with integrity, watch out for overly optimistic progress reporting ( a source of politically driven UK errors)
  5. Project/extrapolate your completion dates from progress data and check that they make sense, review your risks and contingencies each period not just at the beginning.
  6. Identify opportunities to cross check information since this is the only way to catch the thing that will derail your project of programme, the cock-up!


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