Should we just give up on Project Planning?

Have We Lost Our Minds?

by Conrad Weisert
February 10, 2006
© 2005 Information Disciplines, Inc.

This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

Suppose you're a high-level manager in an organization that develops software, either to sell as a product or to use in its own major departments, and one of your people approaches you with this request:
  1. We won't tell you exactly what we're going to build (but you'll definitely like it).
  2. We won't tell you what it will cost.
  3. We won't tell you how long it will take.
  4. We won't prepare and follow a visible and credible plan for building it.
  5. And we'd like you to fund it.

That scenario is no longer as preposterous as we might think. Serious methodology experts are proposing pretty much that approach to major projects.


A decade ago I attended one of the monthly meetings of SIGOOT1. The featured speaker was a pleasant young woman whose topic was Project Management with Object-Oriented Development. Her entire presentation shocked me, but one assertion was so astonishing that I took it down verbatim:

"When we start an object-oriented project, no one can predict where it will lead or how long it will take. After each incremental step we just decide where to proceed next."

I and a couple of others challenged the speaker to explain how one could possibly expect management to agree to such an undertaking, but she stood her ground firmly, assuring the audience that this was the new way and we'd better get with it or we'd get left behind.

Since then the movement toward an incremental approach has gained momentum, but the emphasis has been mainly on avoiding detailed requirements more than project planning.

The new wisdom

The January issue of Software Development magazine contains an scary article by Amit Asaravala. The author reports on a growing feeling (which he doesn't share) that Gantt charts are not useful and may even hinder effective project management. One popular project-management software tool doesn't even support them.

That wouldn't be particularly alarming if the controversy were just about the traditional graphic technique for displaying a task network (detailed project plan), but the real object of criticism turns out to be the underlying task network itself! Whether you display the project plan as a Gantt chart, as a network, or in tabular form, you shouldn't even try, according to the new thinking. Critics have even coined a disparaging term, BUFP (big up-front planning) to suggest that a detailed project plan entails clumsy bureaucracy.

So, some 2006 methodology extremists are urging us to undertake large projects without:

  1. specifying requirements for the end product,
  2. preparing a detailed project plan.

Such a radical and risky approach may work for a very small project and might even serve the interests of a well-funded research organization, but it condemns any normal project in a serious business environment to certain failure. Fortunately so far, most realistic managers are ignoring the extremists' advice.

1 -- Special Interest Group for Object-Oriented Technology, an informal Chicago area organization that flourished in the 1990s and faded away as O.O. technology became the mainstream.

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Last modified February, 2006