Project Planning & the Armed Forces

    By Keith Willeford, PMI Houston Chapter Volunteer Content Writer

    When I think of project management, the first thing that comes to mind is usually “project management plan.”  If you are like me, then as a newly-minted PMP your first order of business was to get back to your company and start drafting that perfect project management plan to solve all your organizational woes.  After all, the PMBOK Guide essentially equates developing a project management plan with the planning process itself.  And, if you are like me, you were quickly frustrated in this quest for the project grail.  That is because the “how” of the planning process is left open to interpretation – defined as employing the tools “expert judgment” and “facilitation techniques.”  (PMBOK, 72)  

    Fortunately, we can look to other organizations for ways to approach this problem.  The Armed Forces, in particular, constantly carry out operations (large and small) that fit the PMI “project” definition.  The military has its own project management plan format.  (This is referred to as an “order.”  More about orders in a later article.)  And, relevant to our current discussion, the Armed Forces have a defined planning process. 

    The first thing you may also notice is: there are a lot of arrows on this diagram!  The underlying philosophy is that planning is an iterative process.  This is best spelled out by Marine Corps doctrine itself: 

    The phases roughly follow this sequence.  However, it is important to remember that planning is not…a simple sequence of steps.  It is a complex process of 

    interacting activities.  The phases often occur in parallel rather than in series… Furthermore, any phase in the process may feed back to a previous one. Finally, this model is not meant to suggest that a single planner or planning group necessarily performs the entire process from beginning to end.  It is likely that different echelons may contribute to the same planning process… This complex interaction is one of the reasons that effective planning cannot be reduced to a linear sequence of steps. (MCDP 5, 33)

    No wonder I felt frustrated trying to draft the Best Project Management Plan Ever!  I was doing it all wrong (i.e. – alone).  As a project manager, my primary planning role is to provide higher-level conceptual planning.  Detailed planning, however, is best left to those who will conduct the actual work.  Thus, the larger your project, the more you will delegate planning to others.  On very large projects, the role of the project manager is to facilitate and guide the planning process, not necessarily write every word of the project management plan.

    You might also notice that the military planning process includes what we consider the Initiating Process Group, as well as the Planning Process Group.  Assessing the Situation and Establishing Goals & Objectives are activities we would see when defining our Statement of Work and Business Case.

    Finally, the military planning process revolves around “courses of action.”  There are times when the course of action may be obvious; for example, when a particular task has been performed many times and institutional knowledge gained about the most efficient way to proceed.  However, taking the time to examine different options before deciding on a project management path forward might hold value for the organization.  After all, situations are fluid and circumstances evolve.               

    Are there stakeholders that you could involve in the planning phase of your next project?  Before committing a plan to paper, can you consider multiple ways of attacking the problem?            

    The military planning process is not perfect.  Sometimes it can feel 

    cumbersome or burdensome.  At times the path forward may seem obvious, yet military planners are compelled to consider various alternatives and thoroughly vet each one before coming to consensus   (although it could be countered that, given the serious nature of the military profession, it is only prudent to consider multiple alternatives before committing resources).

    The great thing about the military planning process is that it is collaborative.  Even at the lowest level, a lieutenant with 30 or 40 troops will have an enlisted advisor, likely with 10 years of experience, by his or her side during the planning process.  (Whether the young lieutenants listens to their sergeant is another story; but, if they don’t they are unlikely to retain command of their platoon for long.)  When you get a couple of levels up, for example to a 500 strong battalion, the commanding officer (project manager) is not writing the project management plan (operations order) any longer.  The battalion commander has no less than 5 staff officers (and their enlisted advisors) crafting his or her plan, and an executive officer (the right-hand person) to guide the process and crack the whip.  The wisdom of this approach is that it frees the manager up for strategic thinking (and the necessary politicking with even higher levels of command).

    Despite my experiences, I have failed to a certain extent when it comes to project management planning.  PMI does not talk much about planning methodology; and, as I framed my brand-new PMP certificate, I presumed I was ready to spit out finished project management plans without any additional help.  Obviously, this was false.  Thus, my recommendation is twofold:  First, find a planning process you like (it doesn’t have to be the one described in this article), and commit to it while planning your next project.  Second, involve as many people as you can when making your plan.  This could save you work, and you will likely end up with a better plan than you could have written on your own. 

    Works Cited:

    •         A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). Newtown Square, Pa: Project Management Institute, 2013.
    •         MCDP 5: Planning. U.S. Marine Corps, 1997.