Why does this plan make no sense??? 

Project management by template, a root cause for confusion. 

All members of the project team provide their input using the same template, a masterpiece carefully designed and crafted by the project manager. However, the output of the plan doesn’t make sense. Maybe the project manager has taken too many shortcuts to success. 

How could this happen? The project manager looks at the compiled project plan. He had asked each team member to fill in the template, which he developed based on his experience from previous projects. This morning, he has compiled the responses. Reviewing the outcome, he recognises contradictions – like trying to put together jigsaw pieces that don’t match.

While the scenario is fiction, the problem described is not uncommon in project management. Using a common standard for templates makes of course perfectly sense, especially in international organisations. In theory all stakeholders who provide input use the same format, so that way the results can easily be compiled and aggregated. In reality it is not uncommon that the results of such plans or reports are of limited value, especially for international, remote and cross functional teams. 

Looking at the root cause of this problem, we often see a lack of common understanding regarding the context. The following communication model below visualises what happens in these situations: The project manager sends the template to the team. The team members receive the template and look at the task ahead with their actual understanding of the context and their own cultural background/filter. They try to make sense of the task with the best of their knowledge and send the document back. This response is of course also received and looked at with the same filters.

 If the result is indeed below expectations, one of two things has happened: 

A) Lack of common understanding of the content

The team members simply don’t have a clear picture of what the purpose of the exercise is, what exactly they are meant to do, how terminology is used, and what methodology should be used to fulfill the task.

B) Lack of cross cultural communication 

Differences in the cultural context lead to misinterpretation of the task ahead. Such issues can be rooted in differences in the acceptance of power distance, the avoidance of uncertainty and other aspects of the national culture.

Communication and collaboration within the team gets of course scaled up with size and diversity of the team. What can a project manager do to mitigate this potential problem? The answer is leadership with a clear vision and common understanding of the expected work ahead. Sending just a template without (enough) explanation on what the purpose of this exercise is, how the terms are defined and what the methodology is to arrive at the data that needs to be filled in, is a key root cause to the problem. 

Here are just a few thought starters for your consideration:

1. Purpose

Check if your team members understand WHAT the task ahead is and WHY the task is done in the first place. Use active listening methodology to ensure that your team truly understands the basis of the task ahead.

2. Definitions

Do your team members have a common understanding of definitions and terminology? Arriving at data from different paths and using different methodologies produces by nature mixed results. You think this is self-explanatory? Well, you might be surprised. It happens quite often that members of cross-functional teams have different interpretations of terms which are used  in their departmental context.  

3. Methodology / Process 

Especially when the templates include the identification and breakdown of work packages or the estimate of resources, it is important that the team members use the same steps to arrive at their parts of the plan/report. Compiling resource requirements where some team members have included fixed costs, while others have calculated on a variable cost basis, of course doesn’t provide the basis for a solid plan.

Do you need to check all details on every work package or template? Obviously not. The effort you should put into clarification depends on the team’s experience, their collaboration and of course the cultural context. However, if you realise that the results are below expectations, a higher emphasis on the check list above might help to avoid a death by template

If you face such issues, we show you how to manage these aspects upfront within the phase „Empower the Team“ in our SPACE project management and support you not to waste time with firefighting.