I was faced with a simple if nonetheless interesting dilemma this week, although I don’t think that either of the answers proposed were the best ones, and that there really is a better answer. So here’s the situation:
On one hand was the idea that a project plan needs to be defined, scoped, and developed to present the best solution to support an organization’s needs (which is certainly reasonable). On the other hand is the reality that if there are any serious resource constraints, they are guaranteed to effectively kill (what I like to call) ‘gold-plated’ project plans (which is also quite true).
The question is, then: How does one strikes a balance between project idealism and project reality when there are known but unquantified constraints?
Some will argue that you always produce the best project plan possible, and then let those who manage the resources make the decision to resource constrain the project after-the-fact. In other words, ask for the moon, and then work with the asteroid they end up giving you (with some theoretical hope maintained along the way that you really might get the moon in the end).
Normally I’m a fan of this ‘negotiated’ approach myself, but you run into serious problems if the design of the project plan is predicated on a required minimum level of investment that still may not be fulfilled, or a longer-term investment that cannot be guaranteed. If you require certain tools or resources to make the ‘perfect’ plan work and they are not forthcoming, all of the work invested in the plan could very well be for naught, delaying the project and in many cases effectively inducing outright project failure. Not only is this is a huge inefficiency, it could threaten the organization if that project has critical implications.
The other argument is to stay off the ‘resource radar’ and work the project incrementally… ask for something small, and build the project in stages towards an ideal state. Of course, again, there are a lot of inefficiencies and waste in this approach because you know there will be rework that must occur (and perhaps even necessary steps backwards), and which also means you’ll inevitably use more resources because of the phased (and overlapping) implementations. Even worse, at some point the project may be deemed ‘good enough’, and never actually get all of the resources it needs to truly fulfill the project requirements.
As a pragmatist, I’m inclined to believe it’s not unreasonable to ask for a middle road.
It seems that even the most dysfunctional organization should have ‘ballpark figures’ on the resources that might be available (swings as much as +/- 70% are still valuable), or have a frank position upfront that the project needs to be revenue neutral (or close to it). With resource boundaries you can temper a solution that has the best chance of acceptance, approval, and success, and you minimize the likelihood of having excessive waste from re-working the project, missing deadlines, etc.
I also like to think that this approach inherently forces a greater level of creativity out of the process, something which is grossly lacking in many organizations. After all, any idiot can spent an unholy amount of money to get what they need – it’s when you have to work within some constraints that you’re likely to be thinking about not just the best solution, but also the most efficient and effective methods of achieving the result. Even better is when management establishes systems that reward creative solutions and efficiencies, such as allowances to reallocate a percentage of all saved dollars, or priority rankings in the next year’s budget cycle allocations.
I suppose there are a lot of variables and situations we could inject into this that could ultimately tip the scale one way or another, but I still like the overall idea that no one should either a.) be allowed to plan or act as if money grows on trees, or b.) be forced to grub for quarters on the street just to make a project fly. And in the end, if an organization is so financially/resource constrained that it truly has no idea what resources are available, then perhaps the pursuit and necessity of the project needs to be re-evaluated altogether.