Scott H Young

Planning the Unpredictable


How do you plan for projects? Whether writing a book, building a house or starting a business, projects require a lot of different actions to come together perfectly for a successful execution. How you plan for that project makes a huge difference in the amount of resources spent and the ultimate success of the project. But unfortunately, most people have a horrible strategy for planning projects that wastes time, money and energy for sub-par execution.

I’ve worked on several major projects over the last few years. I released my first software program at the age of fifteen. Before switching to do personal development work and starting this website I was over a year into development of a computer game. Last summer I released Goals! An Interactive Guide, which took eight months of work and skills from areas as diverse as programming, interface design, HTML, web design, 2D graphics and writing content.

Seeing many of my projects succeed and fail, I developed a personal system for planning projects successfully. By focusing on this flexible planning method I’ve been able to drastically reduce the amount of wasted resources while increasing the eventual end results of the project. Whether you plan on building a website or building a life, following this flexible planning method can greatly increase your efficiency and effectiveness.

The key to this planning method is shifting risk early into the project where there is the most flexibility. Risk-shifting the project may seem awkward or messy during the planning phase, but it greatly reduces the eventual waste. To understand why you would want to shift risk, let’s look at how most people plan projects.

How Most People Plan

Most people don’t plan with a highly flexible planning method. Instead most people write their plan out on paper in the order that seems to make the most sense. I started writing a book a few weeks ago so my basic, unaltered plan might look like this:

  1. Write chapter outlines
  2. Research
  3. Write book
  4. Edit
  5. Publish

On paper this system makes the most sense. It is the simplest and most logical order for how to execute a project. The author will write the chapter outlines, research any supporting material, write, edit then publish the book. Simple enough?

There is an old saying that no battle plans survive first contact with the enemy. Well I believe that no project plans survive first contact with execution. Writing a book is a lot more complicated than a five step process, especially if you’ve never done it before. Unpredictable problems seem to crop up in ways you simply can’t predict beforehand. You might try to publish the book and find out it isn’t in the proper format. You might write the book and then find out that your writing style doesn’t translate well when converted into a book.

It isn’t what you know that will hurt you, it’s what you don’t. When planning a new project, you can plan for possible problems along the road but you won’t be able to predict them entirely. The solution is to start using a more flexible planning method. A method so that you can handle problems with the least amount of wasted resources.

Planning for Risk

The most important factor to plan for in a project is risk. Risk is anything that is an unknown going into the project. There are three major types of risk for personal projects:

1) Areas Where You Lack Skill

There are a lot of areas in writing a book where I lack skills. I don’t have experience with long writing projects. I don’t have skill using .pdf converters. These areas represent risk because my lack of experience means there could be a lot of potential unknowns in the project.

2) Areas Where You Lack Understanding

There are also areas I lack understanding with my book. I’m not completely experienced with processing sales, self-publishing or the systems involved in doing this. This kind of risk is easier to shift than the first because you can usually gain understanding by reading books in the field whereas you can only gain experience through actual practice.

3) Any Time You Delegate Work

I’ve worked with a contractors on projects before. This represents a big source of risk because their work is outside your control. Some people are very good and deliver work on time and to the quality you specify. Others will have huge delays that could damage the project. When you combine this unknown factor with aspects of the other two, you introduce major risk by potentially paying for material you can’t use or don’t need.

Shifting Risk

Once you understand what the potential risks are in your project, you can reduce the damage they can cause you by shifting them to when you have the most flexibility. The more flexibility you have, the less damage a particular problem can cause you.

When I was working on my computer game a few years ago, I initially planned to use a three dimensional format for the game. When later testing revealed that this method would be less efficient than a two dimensional version, I had to spend a lot of time and waste a lot of material to convert it. Had I appropriately shifted the risk in this project I could have saved myself a big headache and countless hours of work.

There are two essential keys to shifting risk:

  • Shift sources of risk as early into the project as possible.
  • Shift any areas of work dependent on risky areas as late into the project as possible.

I used risk-shifting when I worked on Goals! An Interactive Guide. Early in the project I decided that a source of risk was my ability to do the 2D artwork. I had limited artistic experience with 2D graphics so this presented a major source of risk.

So I used risk-shifting by doing test graphics for the program early on. I completed some of the graphics necessary for the program right near the start of the project. If I waited until the end of the project, I might find out I was incapable of producing the graphics to sufficient quality or that it would take too much time.

I realized that any artwork I did for the program would only be relevant once the program was fully functional and designed. Wasting time creating a bunch of artwork I might not end up using presents a huge source of risk to the project. So aside from the small test graphics, I shifted the rest of the artwork right to the end of the project where it had the least risk.

What Your Plan Should Look Like

What this planning method means is that your project is going to look a whole lot messier from the onset. Although this may initially seem to add too much complexity to the process, ironically, it actually reduces it. Although there may now seem to be a lot more phases to the project, each of these phases puts you in the best possible position to handle potential problems.

So my old five step process looked like this:

  1. Write chapter outlines
  2. Research
  3. Write book
  4. Edit
  5. Publish

By shifting risk I have what seems to be a much messier plan but actually reduces the total amount of risk I face at any particular point in the project. The areas where I know the least are handled near the start, reducing the chance I’ll have to waste material. A simplified version of my new plan looks a little bit like this:

  1. Write chapter outlines
  2. Write test chapter
  3. Test pdf conversion software
  4. Get feedback on test chapter
  5. Test publish chapter
  6. Set up merchant account and test selling chapter
  7. Recheck chapter outlines
  8. Write other chapters
  9. etc…

A lot more steps but a lot less risk. Planning is an essential component to successfully producing projects, but too often it is abused to the point where it doesn’t even work anymore. Shifting-risk in a project saves wasted time by forcing you to clear up any unknown areas early in the project and shift any dependent systems back further. Your plan might not survive first contact with the world, but by planning successfully you can ensure your project does.


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2 Responses to “Planning the Unpredictable”

  1. Pamela says:

    I think that experience is a good source of starting something new. Also, it’s a good source of great insights. You certainly did great in shaing what you know about planning.

  2. Alan says:

    Great ideas. It’s always good to prepare ourselves. We can’t get lucky everyday. We need to do things slowly and surely to avoid mistakes that we will regret.

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