Over ambition – the root cause of plan failure

Up the career ladderThe plan was set out. The supplier activity agreed and signed-off. It would be challenging, but ‘doable’.

But I hadn’t factored in over ambition. The fact that I was trying to achieve too much in a tight timeframe. That I was dependent on an external supplier that I had little control over and is renowned for doing things in their own time.

Yes – I had a contingency plan. How could I dare to write these blogs without one. But the contingency plan would take longer and be less efficient. Something would have to go.

Was this a systems implementation, or a new product launch?

No – this was my house move! But bear with me, there’s a valuable lesson here.


Here’s the plan as originally conceived:

  • Packers arrive Monday and pack and move non-essential stuff.
  • Packers return Tuesday and move the bulk of the rest except beds and study stuff.
  • Tuesday evening – run webinar from study at 20:00
  • Wednesday – pack and remove beds, study etc.
  • Wednesday 11:00 dial in and go online for conference call
  • Wednesday pm – phone and broadband service stopped at old house
  • Thursday – phone and broadband installed at new house.

Bullet 5 could be done on the mobile only at a push so not a plan breaker.

Everything was going well until Monday afternoon when BT cut off the broadband to the old house. Arghhhhh….


The contingency was to use my serviced office but that was some way away and wasn’t set up for the webinar so would take extra time. It would also take me away from the move for too long.

Then I discovered BT had installed the broadband at the new house – early! Plan changed. Move beds and study Tuesday am and run webinar from new house. But now packing became confused and the new study was crammed with boxes. No webcam then – just screen sharing.

End result: a fair amount of angst, but webinar delivered. Sorting out took a little longer because I wasn’t available to direct where the movers deposited stuff in the new house.  Time lost setting up systems earlier than anticipated so weekly blog post sacrificed.

Not too major a plan failure then.


A business example

But it did remind me of a major systems implementation where over ambition did have a big impact and cause plan failure. My team took over the PMO for this troubled programme in January. I looked at the plan and objectives and suggested the only way to get the project delivered that year was to plan to do so in November. I was over ruled and the target was set to May.

It was subsequently reset to July, then October, then November and finally delivered in February the following year. You see the over ambition meant too much time and effort was spent trying to achieve the un-achievable instead of focussing on something that could be achieved.


Don’t aim too low

Now I am not suggesting that you set easy to achieve goals or targets. Often you can really surprise yourself with what can be achieved if you really put your mind to it.

So I advocate setting big, hairy-arsed goals.

But not half-arsed goals.


My house move was challenging but had contingency and there were things that could be sacrificed without too much pain. The webinar went out and we actually had people to dinner on the Saturday before going to see the new Bond movie so I think we hit some relatively big goals. Our friends were astonished wew hosted them for dinner the week of our move.

The business project I referred to had un-achievable goals in the time frame. You see, if you are going to set a fixed end date you need to follow a process:

  1. Plan the project without an end date and see how long it takes
  2. Look at ways to bring in the end date with:Note the associated risks
    • Parallel activities
    • Additional resources
    • Other efficiencies
  3. When you have brought the end date back to the target, assess if the accumulated risks remain within appetite and the plan is achievable. 

In the example they started with the end date and just crammed. No meaningful risk assessment was performed.

I believe in taking risks, but they must be calculated, assessed, mitigations and contingencies identified and the end result must be within overall appetite. Otherwise you end up with plan failure.


Is your plan within your risk appetite?

One comment on “Over ambition – the root cause of plan failure
  1. James says:

    no doubt planning is required on any project, no matter the size. during the requirements gathering, expectations and assumptions the term ‘i should mention’ doesnt get used enough. for example when speaking with BT had they said ‘ i should mention’ your wifi will be cut off on said date you may have avoided much disruption.

    when projects are bigger, communication can be improved by PMs with the use of the term ‘i should mention’. whether speaking with resources or communicating with project sponsors, during the project planning phase.

    i use a mind mapping tool when planning

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