header photo

Interactive planning: The best approach toward project planning.

For the first time, Russel Ackoff (1919-2009), a pioneer researcher in the field of systems thinking and management science, introduced Interactive planning as the most effective method for system planning. By looking carefully to the nature of projects, we realize that projects have all the characteristics of complex systems. Hence it is logical if we say interactive planning is the best approach toward project planning too.

Projects, regardless of type, size, industry, duration and any other special characteristics, consist of several work packages and groups of activities which are inter-dependently connected to each other. The level of inter-dependency of the project activities is usually that high that not only activities in the same discipline can influence each other, but also activities in different disciplines, different locations, with different required resources are closely dependent. If we compare this explanation with the definition of systems as “a set of inter-related entities of which no subset is unrelated to any other subset” (Kramer and Smit, 1977), considering projects as complex systems would not be a wrong approach. 

The inter-dependency between system (project) components is the key characteristic for designing an effective planning approach. The inter-relationships between the system subsets determine the system functionality. Therefore any planning method which does not consider this complexity cannot be successful. To effectively plan a system (project), planners should consider the overall functionality of the system while they are planning the components of the system. On the other hand the complexity of system parts’ inter-relationships makes it crucial for planners to follow a PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle.

Addressing all these requirements of successful and effective plans, interactive planning is introduced by Ackoff (1974) as the most effective method for system (and now we can say project) planning. Ackoff defined Interactive planning as “A Participative Method of dealing with interrelated problems when it is believed that unless something is done, a desirable future is not likely to occur and if appropriate action is taken, the likelihood of such a future can be increased”. He characterized interactive planning with four main principles: Participative Principle is based on the fact that no one can make an effective plan for someone else. Integrated Principle addresses the importance of integration planning for multilevel systems in a way that plan for each level to be integrated with other levels. The Continuity Principle is set taking to account that no matter how good is a plan, it needs to be continuously reviewed and modified. Finally, the Coordinated Principleemphasize on simultaneously and interdependently planning across all parts of the system.

The four principles of interactive planning are the principles which project planners should keep in mind – and of course try to explain to the project team members – in order to have effective planning process. Project planners should design the planning process in a way that team leaders and decision makers understand the importance of being actively involved in the planning. By setting interactive planning sessions, project planners should lead the team to carefully determine the inter-dependency of different aspects of the project. The outcome of these workshops should be integrated and coordinated project plans; however all the team members should be informed that preparing the first plan is not the end but it is only the starting point of the project planning process which will continue during the project life time.

In the next article I will explain some practical rules for designing interactive planning sessions.


  • Ackoff, R. (1974), Redesigning the future, New York, Wiley Inc.
  • Krammer, N. and Smit, J (1977), System Thinking: Concepts and notions, Leiden: H.E. Stenfert Kroese B.V.
  • Lumbo, D. (2007), Application of Interactive Planning Methodology, University of Pensilvania.

Go Back