I love maps. I have a lot of maps at home published by the University of Kentucky Press showing the state of Kentucky at various points in its history. Here is a famous one by John Filson, showing the state during the time of Daniel Boone. It’s fun to look at, although if I tried to use it to scout the territory today, it probably wouldn’t help me much.

Truth is, even if I had the most accurate map of the Sheltowee Trace Trail, it’s not the same as actually being on the ground.

Project management is like that. We project managers spend a lot of time developing our project plan, making sure everything is well-oiled and sharp. Then, as we don our boots and step out into the actual project, we expect it to operate smoothly, tick-tock, like a Swiss clock.

Until it doesn’t. It’s then that you realize the map is not the territory, as Alfred Korzybski famously said.

I do not want to say that you should not have a project plan or that you should not work hard developing the best project plan you can. You absolutely need a good plan. Your plan is essential. But also realize that your plan is only going to take you so far. Once you get into the territory, there will be a broken bridge, an angry mama bear on the trail, or an army of Huns marching towards from the opposite side of the mountain.

No plan survives contact with the enemy. –Sun tzu, “The Art of War.”

There is a school of thought out there now that you can’t do traditional waterfall project management anymore, that everything has to be Agile, or everything has to be Scrum— less about planning and more about adjusting constantly on the fly. I disagree. I think the project manager’s approach has to be situational, and a good project manager will see the terrain and use the right protocols and approaches with the right people at the right time.

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. — President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Here’s an example. I’m involved in a software development project right now. We were in the middle of testing, and we had laid out the detailed plan we were going to use. The test scripts were created, ready for publication, and our designated testers ready to go. The test lead stood by ready to coordinate all of that. It was a great plan.

And then something happened. It had nothing to do with our project; it had to do with the payroll system going down. But since people like to get paid, our project could not continue while the payroll system was not functioning.

In short, the bridge was out, and there was no other way to get to the other side.

Don’t panic. –the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Our project plan was still useful– it showed us where we needed to go and what resources we had available to us. We reallocated some of those resources and helped with coordinating the solution to the payroll problem. A lot of resources were consumed with the issue, and a lot of our sponsors’ time and energy was, too. Things had to be done in parallel, but in the end, we built the bridge and made it to the other side. We couldn’t have done that without our plan. And we couldn’t have done it if we had just stuck to our plan, either.

As a project manager, I always hope for the best and plan for the worst. When things go awry, I refer to my map, and focus on the territory to figure out the best way to adapt to press on through the terrain with as few losses as possible.

No worry about what school of thought I’m following.

No panic or letting things disintegrate.

Just focusing on being an integrator, a questioner, a guide…knitting together the threads to bring things back together. To get everyone back on the trail.

And perhaps to make few notes on my map for the next time I pass this way.

About the Author

Bud Ratliff, President and Managing Partner, founded Solarity in 2003, and has twenty plus years of experience in the industry. An experienced consultant and trainer with a degree in education, he has delivered Enterprise Project Management training locally, nationally, and internationally in diverse organization ranging from healthcare, technology, pharma, military, government, and higher education. He is a graduate of Leadership Central Kentucky and Leadership Lexington, and was elected Distinguished Leader for 2004. Bud helped found the local IIBA Bluegrass Chapter and served as its Vice President of Administration and Finance last year. The IIBA, International Institute of Business Analysis, has a core purpose to create better business outcomes through exemplary business analysis standards and practices. Bud is a former President of the local PMI chapter, and has served in many other various volunteer roles, including as a leader in his church and the community of Midway.

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Our mission is to help people, organizations, and communities THRIVE! Our broad range of experience and knowledge in a range of different industries allows us to customize our approach to fit the situation. We work in total partnership with our clients to understand their business needs and the current environment, and then match the right amount of process to meet the culture and the project.