The Value of the “Look Ahead” Plan

By: Alec Talan


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: your project experiences a little hiccup one week, but you’re sure you can get ahead and still make your deadline.

Only that one hiccup causes a ripple effect, and by the deadline, you’re still behind.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

The problem that so many projects suffer from is that the focus is constantly on putting out fires every day rather than being proactive in planning the project from the start so that you actually finish on time. Often, projects start with reasonable plans, but they are beaten to death by overzealous leaders with unrealistic expectations.

You’re left with something that vaguely resembles the original project plan, but has morphed into something…else.

That’s where the “look ahead” plan, as I call it, really excels. This simply means looking forward six to eight weeks out so that you have enough time to plan ahead and course correct.

The Plan Looked Great on Paper…What the Heck Happened?

You mapped out the project, making sure to only load team members to 80% of their capacity. While it looked great on paper, it turned out that your plans were ambitious…and unrealistic.

Why?

I’ve seen it time and again: leaders plan a fictional work allocation and fictional velocity. They believe they will never have problems and it will be clear sailing all the way.

Teams should be loaded to 80% of capacity to prevent overload and give some wiggle room. You will, however, never win that argument with leadership, who will squeeze every resource to overcapacity in the name of ‘developing people’ and ‘pushing the organization to excel.’ The project derails because of overload and burnout.

But often team members are working on tasks other than the project at hand, and they’re too exhausted to look ahead to orient themselves, and instead plow ahead into the next obstacle, which wouldn’t have been there if they had the attention to think about it during earlier phases.

You’re left with work that is full of defects or tech debt because ‘catching up’ means taking shortcuts that cost the project. Deliverables are late, and that compounds, like interest, and we all know what compound interest does, given enough time. 

Multiply this times the number of people on your project and you can start to see why this isn’t the best approach.

Why You’ve Got to Look Ahead

It may sound pessimistic, but your best bet is assuming the worst. Team members will get sick. Holidays will happen. Tests will fail. Each of these small factors can have a much bigger impact on the larger picture than you’d imagine.

If you assume there will be delays from the start, you can walk backward to figure out what a reasonable deadline will be. If you know Task A requires two days, but there’s a holiday that week, accept that this will push things back at least a day. Probably more. Then if Task B relies on Task A, you’ll need to push that back accordingly, and on down the line.

You Don’t Need a Hail Mary. You Need a Plan B (and C, and D) 

Too often, I’ve seen teams come up with a last-minute plan to rectify a project that’s gone off the rails. And too often, I’ve seen those last-ditch plans fail to solve the problem.

What I have seen work is setting up a Plan B (and C, and D) from the start. This should come from the leadership level, who needs to determine what they’ll do if the team fails to meet milestones and when they will execute on Plan B. 

There are a hundred different ways you can deliver something and multiple points where failure can occur. Come up with multiple inflection points to dodge and redirect away from potential pitfalls while retaining direction and velocity. Build in flexibility to maneuver around issues.

Maybe you plan to upstaff at week four if you see you’re not going to hit your target. Or you reconfigure the sequence you’re working on. You might triage, pausing or dropping one task to focus on what’s critical. You might need to ask staff to work weekends toward the end. If you want them to do so less reluctantly, give them a heads-up weeks before you need them to sacrifice their personal time for the project.

The key with this Plan B is timing. Consider jumping out of a plane. When do you open the chute? Pull the cord too early, and you miss the drop zone. Pull it too late and…well, splat. Someone needs to keep an eye on the altimeter to make sure you pull the cord at the exact right moment and that Plan B is executed before it’s too late to succeed.  

Finding the Right Person for the Job

So who’s in charge of pulling the cord? Of looking ahead and making sure your project is set to actually succeed? Whoever built the integrated plan. It’s not someone from the executive team who isn’t on the ground day-to-day. Nor is it your front line troops who can’t catch their breath for all the work they’ve got piled up.

This individual knows that integrated plan through and through because they authored it. They look at it daily and have it internalized. His or her job is to be the lookout and to teach others the importance of knowing far in advance what future roadblocks are.

It’s sometimes a thankless job. Many want to run projects the way they always have, with that “we’ll make it up” mindset. They’ll think this person is Chicken Little, screaming that the sky is falling.

But the truth? It is. Or it will. This role must explain to the team with hypotheticals. Explain how one moving piece, if disrupted, scorches the entire project deadline. Remind them of past project failures and tell them there’s a better way. Point out probabilistic failure points (the sky that might fall) and then suggest ways around them if they occur.

The key here is building credibility. This individual can’t rule with an iron fist and demand that everyone adopt this “look ahead” attitude. It will happen naturally if it’s presented with data and backward scheduling walkthroughs. Get alignment so that everyone sees and understands the step-through of the forecasted failure point and that the brute force way of managing projects has a much higher probability of failure. It’s time for something better.

The next time you are managing a complex project with many possible failure points, look ahead so that you can have line of sight and be prepared to adapt and act to protect the project.