Reviewing approaches and plans is one of my favourite PM mentoring activities, only because it is rewarding to see the shift in people’s minds when they make the distinction between the two and when they realize how to create a better simpler world for themselves.
It is also interesting to see what passes for a plan. Many people do far more planning for their once a year brief vacation for a small group of friends for a few thousand dollars, than they do planning for a year-long endeavour costing hundreds of thousands or multi-millions of dollars for a large group of employees, consultants and vendors. How does that work? Maybe it is because in their own personal situation they know and are comfortable with the key variables of cost, time and scope.
Cost, time and scope … ah yes, the magic triumvirate, and there is sometimes a fourth added but for simplicity we won’t discuss that here. How do these magic triangle elements tie into the plan and the approach?
Here’s one way to think of approach. A project often involves implementing an instance of something multiple times. That may be integrating a five thousand desktops a desktop at a time, or automating the handling of baggage one flight at a time, or improving the transaction flow through for one financial transaction at a time. It could be three of them, it could be thousands of them. But you need to find it. That’s your job as the project manager. Sometimes the repeatable element is obvious and sometimes you have to look for it.
Once you have identified the repeatable element, ask yourself what is an efficient way to do this, to do one of them, detailing the scope (resources and their effort required), cost (resource effort times resource cost, also adding in any equipment or product costs needed), and time (how long do the efforts actually take in days or weeks, and any critical dates or dependencies).
Once you have this defined for one item, you have your approach in relationship to scope, cost and time. Now you replicate this, sometimes more easily done with a spreadsheet, for the number of times you need to do this repeatable element.
Your plan now becomes the point at which you sequence how you are going to do all the repeatable elements and you lay them out in order starting from the first and going to the end until the last element is completed. Laying out the approach the number of times required you will encounter additional effort by other individuals required, wrapper processes such as audit, security, integration and global change management and these should be commensurate with the control maturity required by the organization.
However you will find that once you have the approach and have replicated it and laid it all out like that in a plan, it will be much easier to fill in the other details and your costs, time and scope should calculate fairly easily. Begin with the plan in mind and you will find the other constraints of your project are easier to fill in and understand.