Intelligent Planning: interview with Vanessa Carpenter

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Putting together a project schedule is all well and good, but it only really comes to life when you add in people.  After all, you can’t have your number one resource doing too many things at once.  And how many times have you mentally pencilled in a task only to find out that the person you want to do it will be taking leave that day?

I spoke to Vanessa Carpenter from Marstrand Innovation about the idea of Planning Intelligence.  It was quite hard to get my head around at first as Marstrand Innovation talks about Planning Intelligence as a concept and a method of planning, but it is also the name of their software product.  Vanessa was able to explain both.

Vanessa, what’s the idea of Planning Intelligence – planning smartly – all about?

Planning Intelligence is all about planning based on resources assigned to activities. Resources do the job, carry most of the costs and most importantly, resource bottlenecks are the primary cause of delays in projects, especially when you run multiple projects with shared resources.

Resource planning is the WHO and the WHEN of project planning.  Who is available (depending on skills), and when can they do it? It is also about time, switching from overview and long term thinking to simultaneously considering detail, what is happening today, what are obstacles and opportunities right now versus what is needed in the future? For example, pipeline and investments in future resource capacity.

Right.  So the concept of intelligent planning involves putting the people into the picture now and in the future.  You talk about the four dimensions of planning.  Tell me more about those.

These are the basics of planning, the What, Who, When and Why. We call them the 4 Dimensions: Projects, People, Time and Finances. What needs to be done, who will do it, when will it be done and why is it being done – the consequences.

Knowing these must make you better at estimating.

Yes.  Project managers don’t always know what employees are really engaged in; the employee might have tasks assigned to them by others, and have five things on their plate at once. It’s important to know what everyone is committed to and to learn from experience; what happened last time there was an uncertainty or something didn’t go as expected, was it a special case or something that can be avoided in the future?

Better estimates can come from a circular planning path. Plan, execute, analyze, change, and plan again. After execution, get feedback, both internally and externally, find out why things happened as they did, how was real life different from the plan? Analyze it, and change the planning parameters for next time. Continue in this path, always revising, and each time a better estimate will be made. One good way to do this is with templates, standardizing work as much as possible so that each time the cycle is completed and analysis made, the template can be adjusted rather than planning an entire project from scratch.

That’s a good tip, thank you.  What other advice do you have for project managers working on schedules?

Be realistic. Primarily, a dedicated focus to making realistic commitments is the best tip we can offer. This means having a realistic knowledge of capacity and not being too optimistic and saying yes to too much. Acknowledge people’s actual capacity, including vacation, meetings, sickness, and other absences.

It’s also about handling the unexpected, and having the flexibility to do so. Bottlenecks will occur, there will be problems, projects will be delayed, tasks not completed, meetings take longer than expected, sudden sickness of a key person, a customer who changes opinion, scope creep; these things have to be planned for, give the project extra time, know resources’ capacity whether it is a person’s time or a room or machine’s availability; be ready to adapt to a new situation. This can only happen with a clear overview and access to detail.

Marstrand’s Planning Intelligence software gives you access to the big picture and the detail.  How does it work?

Activities are not defined by how long you think a project will take; instead it is about realistic commitments. Planning Intelligence focuses on bringing them in one by one in one coherent plan. Details can be filled in as revisions are made while cycling through the 4 Dimensions again and again, to get it right.

Because the software handles multiple projects, templates and activities with multiple resources, it is possible to see an overview of all projects rather than trying to plan on one activity without knowing what you are affecting. In Planning Intelligence it can be having access to two synchronized Gantt charts simultaneously – one seen from the project dimension, the other from the resource dimension.

We have comprehensive resource management so you can see capacity and absence, skills and competencies and cost and revenue and plan based on those factors. Everything is time based, the time line is flexible, from years to hours in one system, with the ability to instantly switch resolution and zoom.

It sounds great in theory.  Can you give me an example of where it’s working in practice?

The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet has great success using Planning Intelligence. Everyone from set designer to soloist needs to be scheduled as do locations such as stage sets.  By focusing on resources, who is available or what set is available, and by shifting from overview to detail instantly, they have been able to plan on a 5 year horizon for the long term repertoire down to scheduling to considering who is in the orchestra tomorrow.

Thanks, Vanessa!

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