Ideas, suggestions and general thoughts about project management for development.

What is Iterative Planning?

Iterative Planning is the process to adapt as the project unfolds by changing the plans. Plans are changed based on feedback from the monitoring process, changes in the project assumptions, risks and changes in scope, budget or schedule.
Its a Team Effort - It is important to involve the team in the planning process. The people doing the work should be actively involved in planning the project.  When they get involved in the decision, they become motivated to get it right. After all, they were hired and they have the skills to understand the dependencies. Once they complete the plans, they will own it and will accept the schedule. It also is helpful to involve your key stakeholders; these could be the internal support functions of the organizations such as finance or procurement. Also involve partners, donors or funding agencies who can provide with valuable insights and information on when they need the project to be completed, risks, constraints and resource availability.
Planning should not be done hastily; it takes time in order to get plans that can become useful to the team. Usually the development of all project plans can take weeks or a couple of months depending on the size and complexity of the project.
Iterative Planning Sessions - In traditional – linear - project management, the approach is to implement the activities under the assumptions that all events affecting the project are predictable, that activities are well understood by everybody, and there is no need to revisit the plans. Unfortunately, this approach proves to be not very effective, given the level of uncertainty on many development projects. What happens is that the original assumptions under which the project plan was built change and in some cases in dramatic ways. What was originally assumed to be true is no longer valid. Assumptions about approvals, additional funding, economic and social conditions change dynamically and the project needs to have the flexibility to adapt to these changes.
The project should find these opportunities to review the original assumptions and make the appropriate changes to the plans, specifically in the areas of scheduling, risks and stakeholders. This approach consists of a series of iterative planning and development cycles, allowing a project team to constantly evaluate the implementation and results of the project and obtain immediate feedback from beneficiaries, or stakeholders.  
If you want to elarn more, join the next session of the online course: Adaptive Project Management for Development Organizations and NGOs.
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How to Apply Systems Thinking to PM?

Development projects need to challenge their assumptions about the way they plan, implement and monitor their projects. They need to consider that projects do not function in an isolated environment but are heavily influenced by constant changes that make any plans irrelevant by the moment they are implemented. Systems thinking is an approach to see the whole picture rather than focusing on its individual components. It looks at the relationships and interdependencies among the different elements that make a project and seek to develop a holistic view, one in which change is a constant process rather than a series of snapshots taken during evaluations. The basis of systems thinking is seeing the system as a whole; it is seeing the forest rather than the trees.

The current approach of planning a project as a linear process is failing to take into consideration the importance of system dynamics and the interrelationships between the different components of a project and its environment.

A linear process assumes that the conditions and assumptions upon which the project was designed ( cause and effect analysis)  will remain constant and continue to exist in the future, this could be valid for some types of projects where there is a high degree of certainty that conditions will not change. But the complex social dynamics that development projects are involved cause the assumptions to change constantly, factors such as economic, political, natural and human events make the project objectives moving targets difficult to achieve.

  • The cause and effect relationships analyzed during the project design phase are not always linear; they are complex, unpredictable and constantly changing
  • Planning is not static; it needs to evolve through incremental adaptations feed by the insights provided by the monitoring phase.
  • Objectives need to be adjusted to new and emerging situations
  • Interdependencies and interconnections among the internal and external components of a project are usually not taken into account.
  • A feedback loop, a critical element for learning and adapting the project to meet the new challenges, is not incorporated into the cultural fabric of the organization

Systems thinking allow a new perspective to understand the ability of external elements to influence the project and offers a broad understanding of the complex changing environment that projects are involved. It forces projects to be more flexible and able to adapt to the future, especially to unforeseeable changes. It also helps understand the factors that contribute to the changes and the lessons that can be learned and used to adapt the project to its new environment.

Systems thinking highlights the importance of creating the time and space in the project for learning and adapting. Systems thinking require a better understanding of the internal and external environments, requires projects to build more flexibility to allow for changes and modifications to constantly fine-tune the objectives to meet the real needs of the communities and beneficiaries and not solve symptoms or implement isolated solutions.

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