In large scale enterprise project planning, you actually need several different plans: at the high level, you have a plan with fewer details that provides the bigger picture. At mid-level, you have everything from the high-level boiled down to be more digestible to team members. Then there’s the tactical plan. This includes the nitty-gritty on technical details and specs, often down to daily breakdown of key activities when necessary to account for the myriad of cross-functional dependencies.
While all are important, the mid-level plan is of special importance because it is in the “Goldilocks” zone of being compact enough to orient leaders by showing how everything comes together for a complete picture, but also specific enough to identify the ‘critical path’ and key inflection points. An effective mid-level plan requires gathering information, synthesizing each work stream’s contributions, and identifying dependencies and aligning them for the success of the project.
Benefits of the Mid-Level Plan
This mid-level plan represents the entire project effort end-to-end and includes all key dependencies. It’s understandable by each workstream and most lay people. It’s only as complex as it needs to be for everyone to understand, and it’s not so detailed that it bounces off a reader without being retained.
It is inherently a visual plan (it looks like a timeline) that can (and should) be reproduced, emailed, and referenced by everyone. This should be your go-to for knowing what’s happening on the project at any given time.
Let’s look at what goes into the planning.
Round 1: Start in Silos
While the high-level plan is for execs and key decision-makers, the mid-level plan should involve team members involved in the day-to-day of the project. A good rule of thumb is to include one to three team members per silo in the planning. Any more than that, and you risk losing control of the conversation and you are more likely to get off track.
Start by identifying each workstream’s tasks and milestones. Use the high-level plan (team, timeline, constraints) to get details for small group meetings.
In these meetings, ask open-ended questions that encourage a narrative. Narratives are important in small groups because they tell a story of that workstream. That story is what will help you as a leader translate the work each team is doing and share that information with others.
You’ll also want to focus on documentation. What does the build look like? What are important deadlines? Who does one person hand a task off to? Get details on who, what, and when for each team member and task.
As you build the narrative, you can feel people out and figure out who are your most tenacious battle buddies, who are your key subject matter experts, and who are your biggest risks either from being single deep or exhibiting confusion. This knowledge will be imperative as you push forward in the project.
Always be on the lookout for handoffs and dependencies. They will be what you need to align each team’s plan into one larger cohesive one.
Here’s an example: Team A says, “we will hand off the design in March to Team B,” but Team B says they need it by February, so you’ll have to circle back to get agreement and align on key milestones so these dependencies don’t throw a wrench in the works.
Speaking of dependencies: they should be salient. What IS each dependency? A machine? An email? A decision?
Concluding this first round, you’ll have a mid-level plan for each workstream, and you will have identified handoffs and dependencies among teams. You will also have a list of things to decide, i.e. dependencies and decisions on parameters. When each is in a silo, team members often aren’t aware of others’ dependencies.
Timeline: The timeline for Round 1 typically can take up to six to eight weeks for typical large scale transformation projects, though certainly faster and longer periods are possible depending on the scale and complexity of your project.
- Shared visual
- Working remotely: screen share, cloud planning tools, or version controlled documents.
- In person: projector or whiteboard
I recommend keeping your tools digital because it provides a good capture of that narrative you’ve worked on. Leverage collaboration tools when you can, but if you have to go old school, create a master spreadsheet and color in boxes where each column is a week. It’s good to have as many visuals as you can to help get everyone on the same page.
Round 2: Be Closure-Focused
You now have homework to build out visuals and milestones of each workstream’s plan all together to create a first draft. Even if there are gaps and disagreements (and there will be) you need to put together a best-effort plan. “Best effort” in this case means getting full coverage of workstreams and deliverables, even where there is incomplete information.
In Round 2, you’ll need to hold 1:1 or small-group meetings to tweak your mid-level plan. The purpose of these meetings is to elicit feedback and ask for changes. When people see something (that’s where the visual comes in), it becomes more real and jogs ideas loose.
Show and tell to each workstream. Do this with one person at a time: a lead, decision-maker, or key resource. If you have a choice between authority and expertise, choose expertise every time because the questions you’ll constantly need answers to are:
- What’s missing?
- Who else needs to give input?
- Who else needs to approve?
Your mid-level plan draft will evolve in real-time with each 1:1 followup. It’s a highly iterative process, so don’t expect it to be carved in stone.
Timeline: This round should take approximately about 4 weeks so don’t let it spin forever.
- A single timeline that covers every workstream document with no more than 100 rows on the timeline .
Resist the urge to keep adding more granular content. More rows makes for more complexity and more opportunities to lose the value of clarity. Remember: more detail does not equal a better mid-level plan.
Round 3: Getting the Seal of Approval
Now is the time to bring your mid-level plan back to the small groups and cross-functional teams you started with. If you have two workstreams that are heavily interdependent or working in parallel, you should meet with them together. In Round 2, you iterate until you have a full description of the project. In Round 3, you iterate the plan until you have full agreement.
Your goal in Round 3 is to teach the common plan to everyone so that everyone begins operating from the same set of facts. You also want to triage feedback. Here are three types you should expect:
You should fully expect complaining and grumbling. Defend against them and respectfully challenge the complaints to find out if there is any factual concern that should be heeded or whether the complaints are just expressions of feelings that needed vocalization. Be sure to give complaints a fair shake; most of the time, people just want to get heard.
These are fact-based challenges to the plan. Get confirmation from your workstream leads and experts that you’ve been working with on the validity of these objections. Follow up later with focused meetings with everyone involved to resolve the objection.
3. Real-Time Solutioning and Brainstorming
People will try to re-litigate the plan to achieve what is perfect to them, making perfect the enemy of good. You can talk about these issues later, but right now focus on establishing the status quo, and then you can compare down the road. Wherever this impulse to “start at the top” creeps up on your project team, be prepared to reference earlier planning rounds and be an advocate for the midlevel plan.
In Round 3, you want to walk away with a commitment to the plan as-is. Send everyone on the project a copy of the plan and meeting minutes. If it’s online, give them a location (email is better as it provides a record and forces a ‘positive confirmation’). Before concluding any of your Round 3 meetings, verbally read back the commitments. If there are final objections, do it again until you have a cohesive plan that the majority can work with.
Timeline: This round should take approximately 4 weeks.
A mid-level project plan is the map that your teams will use again and again to navigate their way throughout your project. It’s up to you then, intrepid explorer, to ensure that this map is the most accurate and lucid tool that you are able to produce to serve everyone as a compass to navigate your collective journey.