Written by John Ager, Kepner-Tregoe 

When action precedes planning, projects are likely to be less effective, take longer, cost more, or deliver less than expected. This happened in 1806 with Lewis and Clark, who initially told Congress their exploration of the Louisiana Territory would cost $2,500 and take one year; in the end it cost $38,722 and took two and a half years. Fortunately for their sponsor, Thomas Jefferson, his deadline was flexible, and his downside was limited as they were not in a position to ask for additional resources once they left St. Louis and began paddling up the Missouri River towards the Rocky Mountains.

Projects are interdependent activities requiring oversight with a start and finish that deliver a specific goal or end result. At the beginning of a project, sponsors, like Thomas Jefferson, generally want to know time (start and finish) and cost (resources required) to meet their need (specific goal or end result): this is the Iron Triangle of project management. To estimate time and cost, a project manager must define and plan product scope (final deliverables, including form and function) and project scope (interdependent activities requiring oversight). This requires an understanding of need, environment (conditions that affect the project), and technology (knowledge and materials available to do the work). The approach a project manager chooses to define and plan product scope and project scope depends upon how well they understand need, environment, and technology; does the journey begin at the bottom of a mountain looking up with significant uncertainties on the path to the goal, or at the top looking down with limited uncertainties hidden from view?

Lewis and Clark well understood Thomas Jefferson’s need: the best possible understanding of the territory northwest from St. Louis to the Pacific. Because his need was open-ended, they defined product scope to be open-ended: to learn and deliver as much information as possible. Although technology was well understood, because the need was open-ended and the environment was an uncertainty, which was the reason for the expedition; it was impossible for them to accurately define project scope (the rivers and trails they would follow and the information they would collect each day), and accurately estimate time and cost.

Projects begin at the top of the mountain looking down when need, environment, and technology are well enough understood that uncertainty is limited; there is a relatively clear path to the bottom, when building a skyscraper for example. Because there are limited uncertainties over the course of the project, there should be minimal changes to product scope, project scope, time, and cost. In this scenario, to define and plan product scope and project scope, and to estimate time and cost, Waterfall is an effective approach with each activity flowing into the next.

Projects begin at the bottom of the mountain looking up when need, environment, or technology are uncertainties; there might be unseen crevasses in the path or when you reach the horizon you might see a boundless, bare desert stretching far away. If new knowledge is needed to understand need, environment, or technology, then product scope, project scope, time, or cost are likely to change over the course of the project. In this scenario, project managers use Horizon approaches that offer waypoints for evaluation and planning—such as Stage Gate, Rolling Wave, or Agile—to define and plan the project work needed to deliver knowledge and reduce uncertainty. Which approach is best depends on the cost of reducing the uncertainties.

If need and environment are significant uncertainties, but the technology for reducing those uncertainties is well understood and primarily knowledge-based—for example when designing a skyscraper—then the time and cost of changing product scope or project scope should be relatively low. In this scenario, Agile is an appropriate method to define, plan, and manage changes to product scope and project scope as need and environment become well understood. If technology is also a significant uncertainty and involves capital investment—for example when creating new materials for building skyscrapers—then the time and cost of changing product scope or project scope can be high. In this scenario, Stage Gate or Rolling Wave is necessary to define, plan, and manage changes to product scope and project scope as need and environment and technology become well understood.

For Lewis and Clark, environment was a significant uncertainty, they figuratively began their project at the bottom of a mountain looking up while literally being at the “bottom” of a river. But, because technology was well understood—Alexander McKenzie had crossed the Canadian Rockies and reached the Pacific in 1793—they effectively adopted an Agile approach to define, plan, and manage changes to project scope as they learned about the environment, which was their product scope, to satisfy their sponsor’s need. Because cost was essentially fixed once they left St. Louis, to maximize meeting the need they had to increase time. Fortunately, this was not an issue as their sponsor’s deadline was flexible and, recognizing the uncertainty, their thoughtful planning prior to departure provisioned them to return home safely and deliver a wealth of information about the territory they had traversed.

What is common to Waterfall, Agile, Stage Gate, and Rolling Wave, is the need for planning. As John C. Goodpasture writes in Project Management the Agile Way, “Plans must adapt if for no other reason than because planning is the creative and innovative part of management. Planning is thinking: planning requires thoughtful consideration about an intended course of action. And planning is where many of the discriminating ah-hahs emerge. Planning creates a focus, forces creativity to be committed, and adds order to what might what might otherwise be chaos.” What is different among Waterfall, Agile, Stage Gate, and Rolling Wave is the horizon—how far out those plans extend.

When you begin at the top of the mountain looking down with no horizon between you and your goal, you can plan how you will deliver the final product and accurately estimate time and cost required. When you begin at the bottom of the mountain looking up with a horizon between you and your goal, you need to plan how you will reach that horizon and deliver the knowledge needed to understand if meeting the goal is even possible or define and plan the work required to deliver the final product. So whether you are starting at the top of the mountain, or at the bottom, like Lewis and Clark, effective action requires thoughtful planning.

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