Annual Plans Are Becoming Obsolete. 3 Steps to Help Project Managers Adapt

If you’ve been in the project management game for some time, you’ve probably noted the slow but steady demise of the annual plan.

In some respects, it’s sad. After all, being able to look ahead 12 months and have a sense of where your projects – really, where your whole organization – would be was comforting. It offered a level of security and peace of mind.

These days, if you’re still in the mindset of planning ahead in that manner, you’re probably working with a tentative 90-day plan at best, with only a general vision statement or shortlist of over-arching strategic goals to fill the blank beyond that.

So what’s a project manager to do when long-term planning has seemingly disappeared?

The key is to adapt and thrive under the new reality.

Step One: Understand the New Planning Horizon

In today’s fast paced business environment, changes inside and outside the organization are happening so fast and can be so far-reaching that detailed long-term plans are simply impractical.

The average worker in the United States works at five different companies by the age of 25. It’s wishful thinking to believe your entire current staff will be the same a year from now. If your annual plan includes expectations based on current or projected staffing, it will likely need a rewrite before the year is up.

Financial factors play a huge role as well. A border dispute in Eastern Europe can send your stock prices soaring or plummeting in a heartbeat, which can make organizations hesitant to even draft an annual budget.

If and when a company does draft an annual budget, it’s commonly accepted that the document is dynamic. As the year progresses, it is constantly reviewed and adjusted to account for unforeseen changes. Projects can easily be expanded, nixed, or dramatically altered as a result of economic, societal or technology shifts.

Step Two: Accept the New Reality

If you’re a project manager with decades of experience, the above situation may have snuck up on you. If you’re in a relatively stable industry it may be fairly new. If you’re new to project management, it may be “the way it’s always been.”

But either way, it can be stressful and difficult for the kind of personality that generally excels at project management: detail oriented, list maker, planner, outliner.

It is, however, the new reality. It’s not going to change back to a less fluid, more stable environment optimal for long-term planning. That’s not how the world works. Consciously accepting this fact can do wonders for your stress level and can open you up to successfully implementing Step Three:

Step Three: Thrive in the New Reality

Project managers who understand and accept the fast-moving, ever-changing reality of project management these days are in a much better position to thrive under those conditions.

As an excellent example, look at the product managers and portfolio managers working in Agile project management environments. The entire Agile concept is based around fast, adaptable project planning based on the belief that things change constantly and that unpredictability is the order of the day.

Scrum, a popular Agile methodology, involves planning very short sprints of activity (usually 2-4 weeks at the most,) followed by an in-depth retrospective that allows an entire team to discuss what went right, what needs improvement, and where to go from here in the framework of the full project. Then, with the next 2-4 weeks’ work in clear focus, another sprint begins and the project moves forward.

Using the Agile style of project planning, all the factors described above – financial uncertainty, personnel movement, unpredictable changes required from outside the organization – become nothing but minor inconveniences. Even if something drastic happens, it only really affects two weeks’ worth of work before all necessary adjustments can be made. And most of those issues, even if they are sudden and unexpected, will take more than two weeks to have a complete impact on the work being done today.

Are you a project manager, product manager, program manager or portfolio manager dealing successfully with the constant change and loss of the annual planning method? We’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

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