Conceptual Planning: Achieving Proper Project Definition and Direction, Written by Tom Flynn, P.E., PMP

What exactly is Conceptual Planning and why isn’t it utilized more?

Conceptual Planning has been a consistent and required process within Capital project industries and amongst large and successful systems development projects for quite some time. For years, benchmark studies by Independent Project Analysis (IPA) and others have documented the positive effects of conceptual planning on a wide range of project types and industries.

In many project management-mature organizations, conceptual planning is such a key process, it has been included in their methodologies as a complete project phase. The concept phase is a definitive step to systematically developing accurate estimates, schedules, and expectations for large and critical capital expenditures.

In this article, we will define the process and practices of conceptual planning, where they can be of most benefit for complex technology projects, and why they aren’t being used more often.

“…in most cases overly complex IT makeovers are doomed to fail because their success depends upon too many unpredictable variables falling nicely into place”–Information Week, 13-16 Oct 2006, Paul McDougall

Why does conceptual planning yield such positive results?

Let’s start the answer the question by taking a look at a few projects (public information) where conceptual planning practices could have made a difference.

Project: IRS Infrastructure Project/Program

Expectation: Overhaul their entire technology infrastructure

Outcome(s): Deployment failure meant re-booting the old system for the 2007 tax season, cost to date $8 billion+.

Failure Mode(s): Project was too large and conceptual planning was skipped – outsourced project and expected the contractor to handle the issues.

Project: Nielsen Media Research Project

Expectation: Complete overhaul of their TV Viewer systems.

Outcome(s): Scheduled for 1 year, now 7 years and counting; system still not deployed and major cost overruns.

Failure Mode(s): Unrealistic schedule and expectations, project was budgeted – not estimated and as a result, moved directly to definitive planning in order to conform to timeline expectations.

Project: UK National Health Service – National Program for IT

Expectation: Complete redesign of their national health IT system(s)

Outcome(s): Program dismantled (2011). Original estimate was £6.2billion, government commission called for its decommissioning after £12.billion + (conservative) spent and, “…no confidence that the programme has delivered or can be delivered as originally conceived”.

Failure Mode(s): Absence of an “any real business case” and lack of conceptual planning and early identified technology/execution alternatives.

The Process

We could certainly go on yet, these examples will suffice. All were large and complex projects where the process of identifying alternatives and assessing them for their viability against project objectives prior to definitive planning and execution would have been a prudent exercise. This is a fairly safe assertion as in the failure modes listed above; all are absent various conceptual planning inputs, practices, and/or outputs.

The goal of Conceptual Planning is to assemble a team that can develop alternative approaches to the project objectives so that relevant environmental factors and constraints to implementation are identified, discussed, and considered in the “selected alternative”. This needs to be done prior to the adoption of unrealistic expectations and incurring the cost and schedule impacts associated with addressing these issues during definitive planning and execution.

Where does Conceptual Planning fit in the project life-cycle?

As seen below in the very basic life cycle representation, conceptual planning generally occurs after the project charter has been verified (A). As the project charter does not contain project solution directives, the conceptual planning process utilizes the defined objectives in the charter and develops alternative technology approaches, execution schemas, procurement options, etc.

Planning

Another form of conceptual planning may also take place in the Initiation Phase (B). When occurring at this point in the life cycle, it is usually called “Discovery”. Unlike conceptual planning in scenario (A), Discovery is usually required where the objectives of the project are not clear and the process is used to develop sound objectives amongst various functional stakeholders and a Charter that is probably a bit more of a Scope Statement than Project Charter.

In the basic life cycle representation, Enterprise Analysis, generally done by the Business Analyst, would become Discovery with Business Analysts as core team members representing the various functional stakeholders. Starting the process early is a good way to compress timelines without sacrificing scope cognizance.

Key Inputs

The reason the process usually isn’t started early is due to a lack of proper organizational oversight and governance. A large project may get started in a vacuum and other functional contributors get drawn into the project without the proper context or input. In these cases, which, unfortunately, are predominant, Conceptual Planning can be a good stage gate or “sanity check” before committing the organization and its resources to a long project with inaccurate and impractical expectations. A basic process flow for this form of Conceptual Planning is listed below.

planning2
The process is not complicated yet, relies on specific Inputs and Practices-Tools to achieve its objectives (outputs). Let’s discuss the required Inputs, Practices-Tools, and Outputs based on Conceptual Planning occurring in the early Planning Phase.

Will the inputs be the same for all project types?

The answer to the question is, in principle, yes! Yet, various industries use different terminology for the same practice, deliverable, etc. For instance, a Charter can also be called a Document of Understanding (DOU). So more accurately, the required types of input information are usually and fairly consistent across industries and project types. Obviously, smaller and less complex projects would scale or tailor the process accordingly.

The key inputs to Conceptual Planning are listed below.

 

Supportive Best Practices

As mentioned previously, if these inputs aren’t well developed, we will need to develop or complete these prior to beginning the conceptual planning process, so we will clean up any required Discovery, then proceed to Conceptual Planning objectives. Many times this will be a process of getting complete answers to issues that aren’t well defined and clarifying expectations versus totally revisiting the project premise.

 

Are the conceptual practices similar to other planning practices?

Conceptual planning leverages other basic planning practices applied with conceptual results in mind. We mention conceptual results as a key element in the overall process as we must have a clear picture of how conceptual planning objectives differ from definitive planning objectives. As we will be arriving at only one “selected alternative”, any definitive planning errantly applied to other conceptual alternatives will be discarded, a waste of time, money, and resources.

Let’s compare the key practices to their conceptual and definite objectives and/or uses.

 

The process yields clear deliverables based on the conceptual objectives yet,  what other outputs or realizations are usually generated?

In addition to deliverables we would normally expect after definitive planning yet, aligned with conceptual objectives, we consistently note increased understanding and distinctions with the following areas and topics.

Any increase in understanding in the areas mentioned above will not only benefit the project being planned, the organization as a whole will benefit in project management maturity, discipline and transparency.

Summary

Although Conceptual Planning utilizes basic best practices it is a process that requires project management discipline and the willingness to invest time to understand the project we are about to commit the organization to. Consistent use of Conceptual Planning will yield deeper scope cognizance, better project choices, and overall project management maturity.

Research

  1. Westland, Jason. “The Project Management Life Cycle: A Complete Step-by-Step Methodology for Initiating, Planning, Executing & Closing a Project Successfully” Kogan Page, 1st Edition, 2007
  2. Zwikael, Ofer. “Project Management for the Creation of Organisational Value”; Springer, 1st Edition, 2011
  3. Turner, J. Rodney. “The Handbook of Project-Based Management: Leading Strategic Change in Organizations” McGraw-Hill; 3rd Edition, 2008