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Tailoring, Scaling, and Progressive Elaboration in Project Management Planning
In a recent post, we discussed the six fundamental questions that should be asked and answered when planning any new project. Those questions should always be our starting point, whether we’re planning the construction of a backyard garden shed or putting together the first human mission to Mars. Regardless of the project, we need to know these six basic things: 1) Who is the project for and why do they want or need it? 2) What solves that want/need? 3) How will we create and provide that solution? 4) How long will it take to produce the solution? 5) How much will all this cost? And 6) What threatens our ability to pull off this approach—and what can we do to lessen those threats to an acceptable level?
For planning, every project is identical in this six-question regard. But every project is also highly unique. To state the obvious: a backyard garden shed project is considerably simpler, shorter, less costly, and far less risky than the first crewed mission to Mars. As we work through these six basic questions, we have to adapt the scale and sophistication of our answers to the characteristics of each individual project. We also have to adapt our answers to the stage the project is in; e.g., early in the planning phase, we must focus on the big-picture view of the project, but as we continue to dig deeper into planning, we will need to provide more detailed and refined answers.
We have to adapt our planning—i.e., the answers to the questions—based on the project and the development stage it’s in. Like Goldilocks, we have to select our plans based on what fits our individual situation. We do this via three basic techniques: Tailoring, Scaling, and Progressive Elaboration.
When planning a project, there is no one-type-fits-all approach. From what organizational structure we employ, to the management methodologies we choose to implement, we must customize our approaches and methods to the unique characteristics of our particular project. We call this “tailoring,” and it focuses on choosing the right tools, methods, and plans for our specific needs. I.e., we “tailor” our six answers to the nature of the project.
To do this, we first assess the project’s purpose, scope, level of formality, overall complexity, risks and risk tolerance, and our stakeholders' wants and needs. And then, using this information, select the right strategies and tactics that are best suited for the situation. For example, if our project was primarily software-centric, we might consider employing an agile approach when answering Question 3 (“How will we create and provide the solution?”). In contrast, a residential construction project would be better served via a more traditional waterfall approach. The goal of tailoring is to select those tools, methods, and approaches that are best suited for our unique project. We need to find the one-type-that-fits-us approach.
Scaling is adjusting the size, level of complexity, and formality of our chosen approaches to our specific project. It’s a bit like the old Goldilocks fable; we have to select the right “scale” of implementation for the management of our projects. Small, simple projects will require far less formality and complexity than bigger projects. For example, almost every project will require some type of documentation management plan.
If, for example, we’re planning the first crewed mission to Mars, our documentation approach will probably require serious considerations, like a formal document repository, pre-planned directory structures, enforced document templates, selective editing permissions, controlled backups, formal curating, and bulletproof cyber-security protocols. In contrast, a backyard shed project may simply require a free Google Drive repository to collect any relevant information as required.
The goal of scaling is to select the level of detail and sophistication required for our project. We want to avoid being too large and complex, and too small and simple. We want to neither over-commit to features and requirements on a small, informal project, nor miss crucial aspects and requirements on a large, formal project.
Finally, we need to develop our plans in an iterative approach, starting with fundamental and general answers, and then “progressively elaborating” our answers via multiple loops through the questions. The first time through the process, we focus on the large, big-picture aspects. We strive for consensus agreement with our stakeholders after a first pass through, and then we take successive, iterative loops through the six questions and add in more refinement and detail.
Imagine that we’re writing a user manual or complex document: first we outline. If everyone agrees on it, then we do a rough draft. We seek input on the draft, and then create a second draft, and so on. During each pass through, we add in more and more detail, finally ending up at the stage where we bring in copy editors, spell-checkers, and perform final formatting.
When planning an acquisitions approach of a project widget, we first address big-picture questions like will we create the widget in-house, contract it out, or just purchase it off the shelf? Then we work on developing requirements documents, statements of work, and so on. Starting big and then drilling down with details keeps us from veering off too far in the wrong direction without getting feedback and agreement. The goal of Progressive Elaboration is to minimize wasted time, money, effort—and unwanted surprises.
The Bottom Line:
Tailoring, scaling, and progressive elaboration are powerful techniques. Experienced project managers know these methods help ensure that all aspects of a management plan are appropriate for the specific needs of the project. They keep things flexible enough to adapt to changes as the planning progresses, but also detailed enough to provide the project team with the information they need to make informed decisions and, ultimately, progress efficiently toward project completion. And, of course, it helps manage the expectations of external stakeholders, whilst minimizing unwanted surprises along the way.
The level of tailoring, scaling, and progressive elaboration that is appropriate for a particular project will vary depending on the project itself. When planning your next project, put yourself in Goldilocks’ shoes, and choose the plans, methods, and approaches that are correct for your project.