The relatively big number of Project Management (PM) methodologies considered nowadays makes it more and more difficult to understand the world of PM and make oneself understood, in the context in which terminology is used in explanations that defy the logic, in which people are stubborn in persisting that their understanding is the ultimate truth and, that between white and black there are no degrees of gray. Between all PM concepts project planning seems to be the most misunderstood, and this probably because all the activities revolve around it, while each methodology brings its own planning philosophy. Each methodology comes with its own story, its own imaginative description of what a perfect plan is about.
Independently of the methodology used there are three levels of planning. At highest level, the strategic one, the project is put in the context of other strategic activities — other projects and initiatives, as well business operations, competing altogether for the same financial and human resources. At this level are the goals identified and put the basis for the successful execution of the project, including establishing the ground and integrating the main aspects of a project — risk, quality and communication. Here is decided which projects will be considered, in which sequence, how and when resources will be assigned.
A project plan is typically written and further executed by having the tactical horizon in mind — the individual engagement of resources and actions, the actual means to reach the objectives set at strategic level. It’s the level where the actual project plan is detailed, where activities are sequenced and prioritized. Here each methodology has its own approach — whether the planning is done per deliverable, work package or any other approach used to partition the activities. It’s the level at which the various teams are coordinated toward specific targets. Thus the manageable unit is the team and not the individual, the deliverables or the work packages and not the individual tasks.
The operational level equates with the execution of a project’s activities. Even if the project manager oversights the activities, it’s in team’s duties to plan the activities having the set deliveries in mind. The project manager doesn’t need to know all the details, though he should be updated on a timely manner on the progress, the eventual risks and opportunities that arise in each area. This requires continuous coordination on vertical as well horizontal level.
The project manager typically oscillates between the strategic and tactical views of a project, while the operational level appears in the view only when operational themes are escalated or further coordination is needed. Even if this delimitation is clear in big projects, in the small projects the three levels melt into each other. Therefore the sprung from small to big projects and vice-versa can create issues when the approach is not tailored to project’s size and its further characteristics.
Attempting to plan each activity in the project at the lowest level of detail obscures the view, the complexity of the project kicking back sooner or later. Maintaining such a detailed plan can become a waste of time on the long term. In extremis a resource is used to update a plan, which easily can become obsolete by the time all activities were reviewed. This doesn’t mean that the project plan doesn’t need to be updated regularly, though the pace can be decided on each project’s specifics.
Therefore, one of the most important challenges in projects is finding the appropriate level of detail for planning, and there’s no general rule that works for all projects. Typically the choices alternate between work packages and deliverables.