Good Project Planners Are Like Gold Dust

By Sunchana Johnston - Programme Office Manager

Some time ago, a friendly Recruiter phoned up, asking if I was available for a new contract role. The more we talked about it, the more obvious it became that he was keen to get me on-board ASAP, on behalf of his client. Why? Apparently, project planners are like gold dust these days, or so he said.

That got me thinking.

As a Project Planner, I’m in business of putting credible plans together, on behalf of Project / Programme Managers. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, I love it anyway and wouldn’t have it any other way. Being passionate about planning makes me a strong force in getting the job done, while being a small freelance business makes me even more determined to do the job right. At the same time, I don’t seem to take time to stop and think about my role. What would make me so valuable to others? And, are all Project Planners like Gold Dust?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the source of knowledge for all things related to English language:

‘If things, or people are like gold dust, they are difficult to get because a lot of people want them.’

So, the Recruiter is saying is that my skills of a Project Planner are in high demand. That well may be the case, but, why would a lot of people want a Project Planner by their side?

In order to disperse any self-doubt and self-absorption, I put the same question to my fellow Planners, via LinkedIn. Out of around thirty Planners I contacted, a handful decided to get involved. Some based in the UK, but also others from the US and Canada, and from mainland Europe too. Here is a selection of their answers, packed up with my own interpretation. Their answers were mainly focused around dealing with recruiters, rate of pay, multi-discipline planning, all of this around the Good Project Planners, rather than desk-jockeys, as some say.

So, why are project planning skills so much in demand? What does it all really mean to project communities, and ultimately to the general public?

Could it be a lack of training and greater demand that have created a skills gap, now difficult to fill? This was partially the truth; however, there are others factors too. I’ve listed them below as 10 of my favourite points.

Good Project Planners are like Gold Dust, because of their:

  1. Technical superiority. Planning software applications are notoriously difficult to master. There are various technical books written, and specialised training courses run to master it. There are various YouTube videos uploaded about the magic of Microsoft Project and Primavera P6 to name the few. Microsoft Support Office is also available online, and actually very good source of information these days; there are also various LinkedIn communities where help is available. However, more often than not, some listed features are unavailable, or simply not working on your network. It’s even more difficult to gain Admin rights, which gives you far more freedom to be creative with a project plan. Any Good Project Planner will know the relevant planning tools inside out, as this is our bread and butter.
  2. Natural Curiosity and Professionalism. Good Project Planners question everything. It’s a skill that they must have embedded deep inside, their analytical nature is to question everything, from project scope and budget allocated and estimates, through technical solution details and designs, to stakeholders’ expectations at deployment and testing approach. This helps them determine WHAT needs to be done, WHEN and HOW when they are putting a project plan together. Curiosity may kill a cat or two, but it certainly makes any Good Project Planner. All of this has to be delivered with utmost professionalism. Not an easy task in highly pressurised environments, where tempers can flare at a touch of a wrong button. One of my colleagues also added: ‘In many areas and companies planners are undervalued, not only by salary but also in their contributions to the process. Planners themselves should become more proud and not only do what is supposed to be done. Be professionals!’
  3. Secrecy. Good Project Planners are shy creatures, and keep themselves to themselves. Among the office crowd they’ll be the ones to listen, evaluate and question. Instead of boasting of their achievements, and we all know which project team member does this most, Good Project Planners are notoriously well grounded, level headed and prefer to do a good job instead, as they feel their own professional accreditation is at stake with every project plan they complete. Because everybody wants them, they are likely to hermit to get the job done to the best of their ability. As one of my fellow colleagues, a Good Project Planner said: ‘Some planners are needed just to win a contract because of NEC requirements, while other planners are as precious as being the assistant PM’. And I’d add: ‘Good Project Planners are pivotal in steering the projects / programmes in the right direction.’ More often than not, Project Directors are overwhelmed, and can’t see the wood for the trees. This is where a Good Project Planner steps in, and saves the day!
  4. Coolness & Decisiveness. Good Project Planners are like cool cats who are able to work quickly through a maze of polar opposites, through different answers from various stakeholders, to battle the software planning application tools such that seem to have minds of their own when you need it least, and to be able to justify all outcomes while working efficiently under enormous pressure. On top of that, they need to be able to say a few firm No’s to various stakeholders. This could be the reason why they sometimes disappear from sight all together. If Good Project Planners’ vision doesn’t align with Programme Directors vision, if these are fundamentally different, then the Good Project Planner will pack their bags and leave, rather than to compromise themselves. In one such instance, our Good Project Planner left suddenly. When I asked why the answer was: ‘I’m not going to be associated with deliberate failure.’
  5. Self-starters and Motivators. There is no formal training path to becoming a Project Planner. Most of us learn on the job, some go for project management qualification, such as Prince 2, and proceed to join professional bodies, such as the Association of Project Management (APM) or Project Management Institute (PMI). There is also Planning Planet, which is growing in strength and support. So, Good Project Planners are able to motivate and guide others on the same project team. As one of the Good Project Planners summarised: ‘As a Planner I support projects in many different ways, depending upon the level of planning skills and expertise of the Project Manager, and the size, complexity and priority of the project. I also provide generic and tailored planning / planning tools training across the change management department.’
  6. Sociable Loners. Good Project Planners have to be both introverts, and extroverts. One day, detailed analysis work is needed, and solitary work on software applications one day, just to be gathering information by talking to various SMEs, and running planning workshops the next. Running planning workshops requires excellent communication skills and ability to ensure stakeholders ‘buy-in’, which is a must for a Good Project Planner. Everybody wants a good project plan, and they want it yesterday. According to one of Project Management professionals, Good Project Planners are: ‘Very valuable and make your project shine!’ The same professional points out why the life span on a project for a Good Project Planner may be unusually short: ‘You don’t need much, but if there is a new wind (read: project) they’ll fly away.’ Another Recruiter added: ‘That’s why management is usually especially nice to Good Project Planners.’
  7. Undervalued Project Heroes. We constantly hear how important  project planning is, yet getting paid for your skillset is another matter altogether. Ongoing Management competition races to drive daily rates down are still favourite sport discipline in the industries that practice project management. According to the IBM Systems Magazine: ‘54% of IT project failures can be attributed to project management, whereas only 3 percent are attributed to technical challenges.’ Despite claims like this, some Project / Programme Managers will still hide behind the old Agile chestnut, by saying: ‘We are doing it Agile, and Agile doesn’t need any planning done by Project Planners.’ Others want to be famous for brining prices, and Project Planners salaries down, and are prepared to have the overall programmes late or never delivered, which can have enormous cost implications, despite the initial savings on day rates by not getting the right people to do the job. Project Planning and Estimating is nearly always the first to be affected by this. As one of the Planning Professionals stated, Good Project Planners are undervalued: ‘Because he/she (recruiter) has no idea how important it is to plan how you intend to spend 1.5 billion USD, or you may end up only half way through the project after spending 95% of the budget.’
  8. Visionaries & Fortune Tellers. Integrated Risk Management is one of the main benefits of a good project plan. A Good Project Planner will ensure all Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies (RAID) are part of the Project Plan & Schedule, which is under his / hers jurisdiction. What-if Analysis and playing in Sandpits are a few areas that a Good Project Planner will embrace, sometimes even in their spare time, to relax and unwind strangely enough. There is no bigger joy that being allowed to do this! Good Project Planners will actively manage Risks and Issues, clearly show Dependencies and document Assumptions when Baselining. They can calculate the Project End Date with the credible Critical Path in the software tool with ease. In fact, some team members are convinced that Good Project Planners really can tell the future. Others have no clue why Good Project Planers are needed at all. As one of the Good Project Planners stated: ‘The situation I face most often is that while knowledgeable, experienced planners may be as valuable as gold to a programme, way too often management doesn’t know they need us. The programme manager on one of my recent consultancy contract is the first one in 10 years who understood what I was telling him. My 2-hour intensive interview with the programme director before I was hired was focused entirely on how I would plan his very large programme. This is very rare.’
  9. Stress & Recruiter Busters. Project management is a stressful. However, a Good Project Planner is pivotal in reducing stress levels by showing the team that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, by creating a realistic project plan that details activities needed to achieve the main objectives of delivering on time, to scope and budget, and with quality that exceeds expectations. All Good Project Planners have to deal with Recruiters and by-pass them to get to the actual recruiting manager. This is when the problems start, according to a few Good Project Planners that I know. Here is what they say about it: ‘Planners skills are transferable across all industry sectors. Most of the recruiters I come across are dead from the neck up, and not worth their salt. It’s about time people went back to dealing with companies for positions.’
  10. Matrix Thinkers & Doers. Good Project Planners are able to work across different industries, from construction, and typical waterfall engineering projects of building bridges and rail links in Construction and Utilities, to the Agile setting-up of IT Platforms and Business Transformation projects in Retail, Financial Services, NHS. One of such Planners stated that ‘When you focus exclusively on the planning skills within your industry you close down your mind to new and progressive methods of tackling the problems that arise in a poorly planned project in areas around the additional things like KPIs, Dependency Management, Risk, Cost, Control disciplines.

The aim of this article was to challenge some old perceptions, as the friendly Recruiter could have only been feeding my imagination trying to fill an awkward role. All of this in a bid to ultimately change the mind-sets and prove that Good Project Planners can bring tangible values to any Project. If you need any more convincing, do let me know. If not, just leave your Good Project Planner to get on with it – Happy Planning!

What do you think—have we succeeded in convincing you? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Bron : LinkedIn Pulse

Tags: Planner
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