The May/June 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind is out and I just had to comb through it looking for articles that I might apply to Project Management. There always seems to be something I can use, which says a lot about the applicability of Neuroscience and Psychology to the world of teams and management. This little gem is titled “Focused to a Fault: Planning ahead might make us overlook new solutions”. This really says it all, doesn’t it? Planning is great, right? Planning prepares a map through the dark woods of a complex project fraught with hidden dangers. It is tempting then to map out every little detail even if we have to make a lot of assumptions about the future to do so. As with all good things however, there can be too much. Not only can too much up front planning bog down a project and prevent it from ever getting started it can also cause us to miss alternatives. Opportunities can just pass us by unnoticed because we are buried in the plan.
To give you more details, the article discusses a study published in the February issue of Social Cognition. A psychologist at Wake Forest University by the name of E.J. Masicampo conducted a study regarding the psychology of intentions. In the experiment volunteers were given instructions to perform a task and some of these were also given an implementation intention in the if-then form. Volunteers given an implementation intention were more likely to remember to do the task given to them but they were also less likely to see an easier alternative to complete their task than those who were not given the implementation intention.
“Masicampo…thinks being blind to alternative solutions “frequently results in people expending more time, energy and resources on tasks than is necessary”. But that should not stop people from making plans, he says. That may be the only way to juggle multiple goals — as long as one remembers to keep an open mind.”
So in what way do I think this might apply to project planning? I think that a project plan is necessary and important but that care should be taken to make sure it does not become the bible. Reality should not be forced to bend around the plan, rather the plan should be adapted to reality by a reiterative process of periodically moving back into the planning phase. I also think that the project plan should never become so entrenched that the project team does not have the flexibility to take advantage of the opportunities in those dark woods rather than just reacting to the risks of them.