A Strawman Project Plan – What is it and why should you use one?

As a project manager you’re supposed to have all of the answers when it comes to creating the perfect project plan, right? You know, just create a project charter, then define the scope, put together a work breakdown structure and you have the perfect plan! Reveal it to the project team in a kickoff meeting and everyone is happy.

Of course we all understand that there is no such thing as the perfect plan and trying to create the plan in a vacuum is a recipe for disaster. Don’t we?

Sometimes I think it’s necessary for us to get a reminder that we PMs are not the czars of the project plan so here it is: If you’re a control freak who believes that you’re the only one who can create the plan for the team then you’re in the wrong business. If you think the team should just follow along contentedly to your marching orders, again, you’re in the wrong business.

Our job as project manager is to facilitate the development of a plan that fits the needs of the project, the business, and the project team.

Some of you are thinking that this is going to make you look weak and you’re right if all you do is ask the team to do whatever they think is right. The key word that I used above is “facilitate”. This approach is not meant to be a way to abdicate your responsibility for leading the development of the plan. Admitting that you don’t have all of the answers and drawing out the expertise of your team isn’t weakness, it’s difficult! But it’s necessary and worth it.

The technique that I’ve found helpful in getting input from the team is something that I refer to as a strawman plan. Before getting into what this is I first want to outline more clearly two primary benefits of using one. They include:

• Team buy-in: If the team provides ideas and input to the project plan they’re more likely to support it and do what it takes to make the project successful
• Improved project plan: Your team is made up of smart and experienced people. A plan with their input is far more likely to be a successful plan then one you create on your own

So what is a “strawman” plan? It’s a plan that’s meant to be knocked down. It’s a plan that you don’t have to defend. It’s a plan that you can use to float your ideas openly and present them for critique and discussion. You’re not selling the plan, your using it as a way to engage the team and get their input and ideas. If it’s a good plan you’re likely to have most of it intact at the end of the discussion. Any gaps or holes in the plan will be strengthened by the ideas from the team. If it’s a bad plan the team is going to do you a big favor and shoot it full of holes – if you let them. The moment you get defensive most people will clam up and be overly guarded with their input.

When I use this approach I make it clear and actually say: “This is a strawman plan meant as a starting point for discussion…”. I’m not trying to trick the team – I’m transparent with the intent and the goals for using the approach. Although it’s a starting point I still put a lot of thought into creating the strawman plan because I don’t want to waste the team’s time. I want meaningful input and that won’t be possible with something that’s poorly thought out.

This approach is better to use for shaping the high-level plan, not getting into the detailed work breakdown structure. Once the shape of the plan is in place including the methodology to be used, the structure of the team, the approach to risk management, the general timeline and major milestones, etc…, then you’re ready to put the details in place.

Finally, the goal of the strawman plan is not consensus building! Even with this approach everyone isn’t going to be happy about all aspects of the plan and every good idea won’t be appropriate to include in the project plan. There’s a fine line between getting input to build a good plan and striving for consensus but a big difference in the result. One will be a right-sized plan for the project and the other will be overly negotiated with confusing or contradictory intent.

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