Critical Action Planning – How to Manage Through Poor Visibility (e.g. Concept Phase Projects)

English: Tree in fog Visibility next to nothin...
English: Tree in fog Visibility next to nothing on bridleway through Foxlane Plantation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Managing concept phase projects is challenging with any project management tool or technique, because you start with almost no certainty about the tasks that will be needed. We can surely imagine some work on concept brainstorming, preliminary requirements definitions, market research, component ordering, prototyping, concept testing, and report writing. But it’s really hard to be much more granular than that, when we haven’t even defined requirements or brainstormed concepts yet.

What’s a Critical Action project manager to do?

First, get the team together and plan out the Project Tasks and estimated Work-units for this week, in granular detail. You have to create clarity for at least one week. Maybe you’ll hold one or two brainstorming meetings. Maybe you’ll research critical components you might use in your design. Maybe you might order some competitive products. The team probably knows more than you think.

Second, if your company is like mine, there is a standard set of deliverables for a concept phase project. The next step is to create Placeholder Tasks that broadly represent the activities that your team needs to perform, to achieve these deliverables. These Placeholder tasks don’t need to be too granular, because you will add granularity later. If a concept phase deliverable is a “Requirements Specification” you can define the tasks needed to identify requirements, write them up, hold a design review, etc. As I mentioned above, you can include tasks for concept brainstorming, component ordering, prototyping, concept testing, and report writing. If you have an idea about subsystems, you can break out the tasks by subsystem. The idea is to capture all the right types of tasks to get all the deliverables done.

Third, like any Project Task, estimate the Work-units required for each of the Placeholder Tasks. Try to make reasonable estimates, but don’t waste too much time trying to achieve perfection. It’s unreasonable to expect an accurate projection when visibility is so poor. Now’s a good time to measure scope and compare to capacity.

Fourth, each week, as you gain more visibility, replace the Placeholder Tasks and estimated Work-units with new tasks that represent the real Project Tasks and Work-units that the team will perform. When you remove Placeholder Tasks, and replace them with granular Project Tasks, don’t be surprised if the Project Scope starts to move up and down. Your Project Scope estimates become more accurate as your project gets more visibility. Each week, prioritize the backlog as you would for a more well defined project. Also, as knowledge is gained and plans change, don’t be afraid to remove tasks from the backlog and add new ones.

That’s it. When projects have poor visibility, we start with broadly defined tasks. We replace these broadly defined tasks with well-defined tasks as visibility improves. Each week, it’s important to provide clarity for that week’s work, by making sure that the Project Tasks that move into WIP are well defined. Keep your plan up-to-date and the team will perform well.  Changes in the estimated project scope represent reality, so get used to it.


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