Natural project planning
Natural project planning is a project planning method described by David Allen in his bestseller Getting Things Done. In this post, I describe the method.
Natural project planning consists of a couple of steps:
- Define purpose and principles.
- Visualize goals and outcomes.
- Organize the ideas.
- Define next actions.
What are the goals of natural project planning?
- Help clarify the steps needed to complete the project.
- Visualize the endgame — the outcome of the project.
- Identify next actions needed to move the project forward, and people responsible to complete them.
This is not a strict process and you should not follow it religiously. Follow it only as much as it makes you feel you have the project under control. You can always redo any of the steps later — or zoom in as needed.
David Allen says that this process is natural, but doesn’t come naturally. He explains that these are the five steps that your mind will naturally go through between I’m hungry and you searching for some good vegan restaurants nearby. On the other hand, often in the corporate environments we can hear our boss asking — Does anyone have any good ideas? This is not how it works, you can have good ideas without having a lot of different ideas first. And generating some random ideas without the vision of the outcome, or without knowing the boundaries is not super helpful either.
Let’s zoom in on the steps.
Natural project planning process
Define purpose and principles
Answer the why? question:
- Why do we go on these holidays?
- Why do attend this meeting?
- Why do we do this project?
- Why do we have him on the team?
How does it help?
- It defines success, clarifies focus and motivates.
- It defines boundaries and creates decision making criteria.
- It may also expand your options — as you’re focused on the success criteria, not a single solution you might have had in mind previously.
What about the principles? The principles are the hard boundaries you’re not willing to compromise on. To help identify them ask the question I’d be OK delegating this project, as long as they ….
Visualize goals and outcomes
We know the landscape, not let’s try to visualize how the success may look like. This is the what? question.
- Think about success criteria.
- Visualize success.
- Define clear outcomes.
Your brain is now ready to fill in the blanks between now and end-game.
Initially allow yourself to have a lot of ideas. Go for quantity, not quality.
Tips on brainstorming sessions:
- Write down the ideas. It’s hard to focus for longer than 30 secs without a writing aid.
- Don’t evaluate or criticize them yet.
Don’t try to organize the ideas initially. It is important to let your brain move away from the local optimum — the solution you may already have in your head.
Organize the ideas
We can organize now the output of the previous step.
Let us try to:
- Figure out the key components.
- Put the items in a sequence, e.g. group/sort by: components, sequences, priorities.
- Drill down if more details needed — recursively apply all or some of the steps to subcomponents.
Define next actions
At this point, we know the landscape, the boundaries of the project. We’ve visualized the desired outcome. We generated a lot of ideas and subitems. But how do we go from here to there?
We don’t aim for a perfect plan or a full Gantt chart. We know what needs to be done, we have the components and priorities. What we want here are the next actions we have to do to move the project forward. Just a single (or a few) next actions we can do right now to be closer to our outcome.
For each key component:
- Figure out the next action.
- Figure out the responsible person.
- Can we start now?
What if we are not comfortable with the project yet? If you feel you need a bit more planning then figure out the next actions for planning (Are some key people missing?, Do we wait for some other project to finish?, Do we need more data?).
Things are stuck? 🦥
You are responsible for a project but it looks like there’s no progress being made? Everyone is running in circles?
Let’s work our way through the process again. This time you may prefer to go backward and stop when you think you have it back under control:
- Do we have next actions and clear responsibilities for delivering them?
- Do we need to go back to the whiteboard and brainstorm and organize?
- Can the participants see the successful outcome of the project?
- Finally, do we know the hard boundaries and do we know why we’ve undertaken the project in the first place?
- It’s important to have a vision of the end goal, as it guides your actions.
- It’s equally important to define next actions and responsibilities to move the project forward right now.
- Develop a habit to ask the Why? question. Why do I write this blogpost?, Why I’m on the train to Warsaw right now? — great questions :)
- Allow yourself to have a lot of ideas first, evaluate and organize them later.
The natural planning model scales with the project. A planning session can be short and informal or as in-depth as you need. The planning can be done solo, or with the other team members or shareholders.
You likely apply some parts of this model already. Next time when you want to put a stuck project on-track try deliberately applying the natural planning model.