Management in the Not for Profit Organization

Dedicated to Exploring the Philosophies and Techniques of Management in the Non-Profit Sector

Planning a project?  Why?

(Things never go to plan anyway!)

 project schedule Gantt

 Ever heard the saying "No battle plan survives initial contact with the enemy"?  How about Nike's "Just do it"?  Have you encountered bosses who say there’s no point in spending money on planning when you could be spending it on getting things done?  How about a manager who says "It's a waste of time to plan when everything changes anyway" or its converse, "It's a waste of time to plan when we already know how to do this stuff".  Sometimes these things are said in ways that make it clear the underlying message is “just shut up and do it”.


So who is it that says planning isn’t needed?  Sometimes it’s the middle manager who wants to curry favor with the big bosses by immediately showing how much he or she can get done at warp speed with the expenditure of few resources.  Or, it could be the boss who knows it all and therefore does not feel the need to look beyond a basic, canned plan that has been used before.  Then again it could be the arrogant individual who presumes everyone around him or her who insists on an effective planning phase is just being lazy and putting off “real work”.  Fact is, there are many excuses for not planning.  But there are few good reasons.


So what is the point in spending time on a plan?  Well here is one vignette that seems to capture the concept of why some good planning needs to be done at the outset of a project:


“I have a friend named Larry who is a retired Air Force Pilot. One day he shared with me an interesting fact about flying. He said that, for every single degree you fly off course, you will miss your target land­ing spot by 92 feet for every mile you fly.
That amounts to about one mile off target for every sixty miles flown.
If you decided to start at the equator and fly around the earth, one degree off would land you almost 500 miles off target.
So, the longer you travel off course, the fur­ther you will be away from the intended target.
Is that acceptable? Not if I am on the plane. On a flight from JFK to LAX, that might put me 40 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. One degree off could be the difference between making it to an important meeting on time, or using my seat as a flotation device… What is your tolerance for being off course?” (Enochs, 2010)

 Initial planning sets the course for the project.  It doesn’t mean that some in-flight corrections won’t be needed, but if you don’t have a plan it’s hard to know what needs to be corrected.  In fact, it’s harder to catch the need for a correction in the first place.  If we don’t sit down and create a decent plan at the beginning, we elevate our chances of being off course right from the start of the execution phase of the project.  And as described in the example above, small guidance errors at the beginning lead to large distances from targets at the end.


Now, let’s take the first two excuses in the opening paragraph and address them.  First is the quote "No battle plan survives initial contact with the enemy".  That statement is usually attributed to Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a 19th century Prussian military innovator.  In fact, von Moltke was a fastidious planner.  He wasn’t saying that one should not plan.  Rather, he believed that one should have back up plans and be flexible.  (Hickman, undated) So yes, one must be aware of and respond to the project's environment continuously after the plan's implementation begins.  But one must start with a solid plan.  As the great Chinese military thinker, Sun Tzu put it:

"The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose."  (Sun Tzu, c. 400 B.C.E)

But what about Nike’s “Just do it”?  Why is it problematic?  If we can think on our feet, what is the purpose of a plan?  Here are a few things to consider:


There's no way to be sure we've anticipated every need and planned for every contingency.  But that doesn't mean it's logical to spend little or no time planning.  Quite the opposite:  We can't plan for every possible scenario, but we can at least cover the things we can anticipate.  Inadequate planning is irresponsible.

 Now, about that last excuse in the opening paragraph:  Why plan again when “we already know how to do this stuff”?  Take the example of a teacher with a lesson plan.  For the past five semesters, the average class grade has been a D.  Should the teacher use the same lesson plan for the next class?  (Of course!  It was all the students' fault).  Obviously, that plan needs to be reworked.  But what about cases when all the students got A's in the previous semester.  Should a new lesson plan be created?  The facts are that the state of the art in both teaching and the subject matter change constantly.  In addition, the environment of the school can change and of course, the students in the classroom are new too.  So yes, even though it was successful previously, every facet of the existing lesson plan should be reviewed with improvements made where possible.  That is planning - and it is necessary.

 But how do we know how much time, effort, and money to invest into planning?  Well that varies by project.  I am not going to commission a two-year, three million dollar planning phase to create a plan for building a birdbath.  One the other hand, I might do that for a giant dam.  The amount of planning needed is directly proportional to project risk, and one key risk factor is the level of complexity.  The more moving parts to a project, the more that can go wrong.  Risk is a better indicator than cost or duration of the project, and even a little better than gauging by the expected length of the product’s life.

For example, an Olympic sprinter's race only lasts 10 seconds, but it's a once in a lifetime shot at a gold medal, it has to be perfect. Another example is something that involves life/death or large amounts of money.  They should have more planning than something that is low risk or low cost.  Projects in those lower categories can be done with less rigorous planning because the cost of rework or numerous iterations can be borne more easily.

 Planning provides a chance for vision.  It's our opportunity to peer into the crystal ball and also use some imagination.  This creates a setting in which innovation and improvement can occur.  Yes, business, like life, is quite unpredictable.  But not every decision has to be sudden and impromptu.  Some can actually have some thought and reasoning behind them.  Flying by the seat of our pants might get us somewhere, but it's not likely to provide the most efficient routes.

 In short, the fact that we can’t anticipate everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to anticipate anything.  It means we should plan what for what we can.



Enochs, Tim. IRREFUTABLESUCCESS, One Degree Off Course, 2010. Online, found at


Hickman, Kennedy. Military History, Franco-Prussian War: Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Online, found on 3/17/12 at


Sun Tzu. The Art of War.  1910. Originally circa 400 B.C.E.  Lionel Giles, Translator.