Geek Igor

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:

  1. Define purpose and principles.
  2. Visualize goals and outcomes.
  3. Brainstorm.
  4. Organize the ideas.
  5. Define next actions.

What are the goals of natural project planning?

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:

How does it help?

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.

Your brain is now ready to fill in the blanks between now and end-game.

Brainstorm

Initially allow yourself to have a lot of ideas. Go for quantity, not quality.

Tips on brainstorming sessions:

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:

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.

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:

Key takeaways

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.