When I am mentoring project managers one of the first distinctions that helps to sort out some confusion is separating the plan from the approach.
Most projects involve a repetition of a set of tasks to move a business or technology asset from one state to another. The completion of the set of tasks for each of the business assets in the project constitutes what technology calls “the project”. The business area or business customer needs a broader definition and to them the project includes items like cultural change management, communications, training, business process documentation changes and other items related to how the business has to successfully adapt so that the project is successful.
Every execution of the set of tasks described above is the approach. In other words if we have a bunch of things we have to do something to, what is going to be our approach? Well first we will do this, and then we will do this, and then once that is done, then this can be done, and so on until the last task is completed. We will do that for a certain number of business or technology assets. The approach is then the steps to transform each of the things the business owns from one state to another. We may take that approach a number of times during the project depending on how many of those things we have to change.
The Plan is a listing of the approach steps for each grouping of like items that has to be transformed. Additionally the plan includes all of the business and technology wrapper items such as change management, communications, process and document updates and training.
To illustrate this contrast between the Plan and the Approach, when I have a mentoring session with a project manager and they bring in their plan and all of their documents I usually like to take their papers, turn them upside down on the table and then ask the PM: “Now you have so many of these things to do, how are you going to do each one?”, and then wait for a description. What comes out next is very illustrative of how well they differentiate the approach from the plan and really revealing about the challenges they may face in building their plan.
If the project manager cannot make the distinction, the plan will usually be task and activity based so instead of focusing on what is being delivered it will focus on how it is being done. If they do make the distinction, it will be deliverables based and will focus mainly on what is being provided to the business and allow some flexibility on how it is being done.
Therefore the plan is not the approach and once the PM makes the distinction and organizes the project by first thinking about the approach and then creating the plan around that, they are more likely to have a successful set of steps to deliver for the business.