Why Focusing on People in Project Planning Will Help Projects Succeed

Plan for Project Success by Focusing on PeopleWhat do an 18th century founding father, a 20th century military leader, and a modern day business author have in common with us – Project Managers?

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” This quote, or its variations, has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, Harvey Mackay, and others. Their professions were as dissimilar from our PM profession as the ages in which they lived and their life experiences.

These men recognized the fact that almost without exception, anything worthwhile is accomplished with vision and planning. Our profession, Project Management, is nothing if not comprised of planning, re-planning, planning to re-plan, re-planning to plan to re-plan … you get the picture. The most successful projects are the ones with the most comprehensive and flexible project plans.

How often have we witnessed, or worked on, or maybe even managed, projects which adhered to the “planning to fail” model? I once watched a project crumble based on the Project Manager’s “good ol’ boy” approach to the project. You know the kind – the client loves him, so you just know that everything will go fine.

I’m reminded of the quote by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, “Adventure is just bad planning.” That may be true when you’re exploring the South Pole; but in Project Management the adventure is short-lived and quickly replaced by crisis, calamity, fiasco and that nastiest of Project Management f-words – failure.

Project Planning is Typically a Technical, Process-Oriented Exercise

Because Project Managers are good at the technical aspects of our craft, we resort to the technical processes of proper project planning. We:

  • baseline the scope, schedule and cost;
  • develop subsidiary plans to manage scope and requirements, manage quality, improve processes, coordinate project communication, manage issues and action items, manage our stakeholders and others;
  • select the system development life cycle;
  • tailor Project Management processes to the project in question;
  • establish Change Management, Configuration Management, and Risk Management Plans;
    and, oh yes, before we forget
  • manage our human resources.

This last point I found most intriguing, because in my experience it is the “human resources” – can’t we just call them “people” or “project staff” – that have it in their power to drive project success or participate in its failure. Yet managing project staff is often considered just a technique that a good Project Manager is gifted with, or has picked up along the way.

I was curious about this and did a little research. I reviewed the “PMBOK® Guide” Sixth Edition, the Project Managers’ “Bible.” It is 537 pages (almost 800 pages if “Part 2, The Standard for Project Management,” is included). I discovered that there are only a handful of pages devoted to the management of “human resources.”

The topics covered in the PMBOK® include such items as roles and responsibilities, project organization chart, staff acquisition, resource calendars, staff release, training needs, recognition and rewards, compliance and safety.

Did you get that? Clinical. Sterile. Arts and Charts. Let’s throw in a little “recognition and rewards” to show that we’re paying attention to the people aspects of “human resource” management.

Ok, ok, I understand. The PMBOK® Guide is designed to provide a process-oriented approach to Project Management. It is not a handbook for human development or organizational behavior or team building. That is by necessity.

But in our quest to manage projects successfully, we tend to default to process when planning our projects and forget to include the people aspects. It’s as if an org chart and resource loading plan will ensure on-time delivery, while lunch with a struggling employee is something we learn through osmosis and initiate as we find some time in the schedule.

Project Planning Must Be a People-Oriented Exercise

You’ve learned by now that my Project Management mantra is that there is never an excuse to let the people issues slide by. Yes, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” At the same time, if we succeed in developing the most excellent of project plans, we still “plan to fail” if we don’t pay attention to the people aspects of the planning process.

Note what the following people said about planning. These ideas and ideals are as relevant to the Project Management planning process as they are to the authors’ situations.

  • “Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” – Paul J. Meyer, founder Success Motivation International

    Mr. Meyer did not advocate just planning for success. Yes, he recognized the need for intelligent planning (i.e. the ability to apply one’s experience and wisdom to any given situation); but more so, he recognized that the ability to evoke the staff’s commitment to excellence and to focus their efforts in a meaningful way were the key elements of success.

  • “Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” – Alexander Hamilton, US founding father

    What if the Project Manager were able to recruit a few team leads or other project staff and involve them in the planning? This can be difficult in the early planning stages, but planning is a never-ending Project Management process. Involving staff on the ground in the planning process gives them and their teams more incentive to help ensure success.

  • “Thinking well to be wise: planning well, wiser: doing well wisest and best of all.” – Malcolm Forbes, publisher Forbes Magazine

    In just 15 words, Mr. Forbes encourages excellence in all aspects of vision, planning and execution. Now apply that to the brainstorming and collaborative power of an entire empowered project team.

  • “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” – Gloria Steinem, journalist, women’s rights activist

    Just like Mr. Forbes, Ms. Steinem cheer-leads for imagination and visioning. As creative as many Project Managers are, they are much more so when they involve the imaginations and dreaming of their project staff.

  • “When you establish a destination by defining what you want, then take physical action by making choices that move you towards that destination, the possibility for success is limitless and arrival at the destination is inevitable.” – Steve Maraboli, behavioral scientist

    While Mr. Maraboli’s quote is proposed to motivate individuals to act on their own goals, think about what would happen if we applied his concept to projects. Apply the continual motivational aspects of people management to established Project Management plans and “the possibility for success is limitless and arrival at the destination is inevitable.”

People aspects. People skills.

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” True. At the same time, as I posited earlier, even if we succeed in good planning, we still “plan to fail” if we apply only the process-oriented skills of project planning. We have a much higher chance for success if we also infuse the people aspects and people skills in the planning process.

Get staff involved in project planning. Then as you execute the plan, apply those “soft skills” of people management to everyday actions against the plan. There is never an excuse to let the people issues slide by.

I was once asked during the throes of a very difficult project what I would have done differently during the planning process. I responded, “Dad was planning for me to become a dentist. That’s the plan I should have executed.”

Nah, not any more. Project Management is a wonderfully rewarding occupation … if you pay attention to the people aspects of Project Management.

If You Succeed in Planning … Well, You Know the Rest.

3. Planning Process – Project Integration Management


Merv Jersak
If you want your IT projects to come in on time and within budget; if you want your clients to be your best ambassadors and your project teams to be committed to your success; if you want to stop leaving money on the table – then Merv Jersak is the mentor and coach who will work with you to help attain the results to which you aspire. With more than 40 years’ experience as an IT Project Management and systems consultant, Merv works with IT solution providers and end-user organizations, focusing on the people aspects of project delivery to drive more profit to the bottom line and to have fewer budget overruns.

To learn more about Merv’s service offerings, or to hire him to speak to your organization, visit www.PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com.

EMAIL merv@PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com // LINKEDIN www.linkedin.com/in/mervjersak

52 Project Management Success Tips from Merv Jersak  •  Copyright ©2020. All rights reserved.