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How to organize an Interactive Planning Session (Part A)

The theoretical backbone of Interactive Planning (IAP) methodology has been introduced for the first time by Russel Ackoff in 1971; however it seems “Jacobs Engineering” is the company which developed IAP as a tool specifically for project planning and management based on the main principle that “no one can plan for anyone else”! Nowadays project teams in many companies worldwide are getting more and more interested in utilizing IAP methodology for planning and controlling of projects.

However the concept of involving everyone in planning may sounds easy to implement, experience shows that many planners find it challenging to plan and organize an efficient and productive IAP sessions. I searched for sources or guidelines that practically explain how a good IAP session should be and what needs to be done to have it well organized, effective and efficient. Surprisingly not many information I could find. Therefore I decided to write a kind of “Action List” based on what I have experienced, in a way that young planners who are going to use this methodology know where they can start from. Of course the details depend on your organization culture and knowledge base. But I believe these items can be your starting point:  

A) Preparations

 1. Introduce IAP and its objectives to stakeholders before the session:

Don’t expect all the people who are involved in the project to be familiar with the Inter Active Planning concept. As a planning expert, before organizing any session and expecting people to participate in interactive planning, it is your responsibility to make sure that all the team members understand the importance of this session and are familiar with the process. You may organize an introduction meeting or prepare a procedure. Whatever you do, make sure that people know in advance why they will be invited for IAP and what they are expected to do in the session.

 2. Plan in advance:

You are a planner, right? So you know better than everyone that you won’t have an efficient and effective IAP session without having it planned in advance. In your plan try to answer to these questions: Who you want to invite to the IAP? Who are the action holders? How many IAP sessions you need? What is your strategy: Are you going to have all the participants at the same time or you prefer to invite them to the session in sequence? When you should send out the invitation? What tools you need for the session? How you are going to record the results? What would be the agenda for the session? Which information you need prior to the IAP? When you start with pre-meeting discussions? How you involve external stakeholders?

  •  Identify key stakeholders!

However all the action holders need to be involved in the planning process, it doesn’t mean you should have too many people in your IAP. Too many participants make your session inefficient and too few participants may cause you to miss some important information. Therefore prior to the meeting, identify the people who are the key action holders or key decision makers. You may ask for your project manager’s help for that. One of the best things to do is to use your Work Breakdown Structure and try to invite the lead of each WBS element for your session. Then considering the fact that WBS is supposed to cover the entire project, you can be sure that you won’t miss any information. Don’t forget that in many cases and depending on the contract type, external stakeholders also should be involved in IAP. Together with your project manager decide if you need to invite them or not? Maybe you organize separate IAP sessions for internal and external parties but anyway, you need to make sure that you end up with a comprehensive plan that covers all the key stakeholders’ opinion.   

  •  How many IAP sessions you need?

You may call them IAP1, IAP2, IAP3 or as I named, pre IAP, High level IAP, Detail IAP! Whatever you like to name, depending on the size and complexity of the project you may need more than one interactive planning session. The number of IAP sessions and the objectives of each one is something you need to decide about. Usually in large and complex projects it is wiser if you consider three meetings. In “Pre IAP”, together with your project manager and probably executing manager (Could be the project engineer, Construction manager, manufacturing supervisor,…) finalize your approach and objectives of IAP session. In “High Level IAP” you will add discipline managers and leads to the board and decide about the high level technical and contractual milestones. Finally in “Detail IAP” you determine the start/finish date of the main activities. Usually the outcome of the “Detail IAP” session is the activities which will shape the critical path in your schedule; however some planners prefer to keep the IAP just for identifying the inter-discipline relationships and finalize the critical path in separate meetings with discipline leads. For smaller projects you can combine these sessions into two or one session.

  •     What is your IAP Strategy?

Depending on the type, size and complexity of the project you may choose different strategies for the IAP session. The more common strategy is to invite all the key stake holders to the meeting and lead them to discuss, negotiate and plan their activities! But sometimes when you have a big team it is more efficient if you invite the participants in order. In this approach first you need to prioritize the participants based on the level of interdependency of their activities to the other disciplines. Stakeholders who their activities are the predecessors for most or many of the other disciplines would have the first place in your priority list. Just to make it easy to call, let’s call them the “Main Action Holders”. Then you can start to invite people to the IAP in sequence based on your priority list. First invite the main action holders to the meeting and ask them to give their suggested schedule for their activities. Then you will ask the other participants to join to the meeting and give their planned dates according to the key dates suggested by the main action holder(s). In the process of adding people to the meeting, you will resolve the conflicts between the suggested schedule of newly added action holders and the previous participants. During this process you gradually complete your planning and you can make sure that you have all the action holders’ planned dates and all the interactions are mutually agreed between the team members. This approach helps you to have more efficient IAP session when you have very big team.     

  •  Prepare the tools!

What are the tools you need for the IAP? Well, this mainly depends on your preferences that how you like to record the results. Some planners prefer to record the IAP results digitally taking advantage of planning software (Primavera, MSP …). Some others still prefer the traditional big wallpaper calendars which people stick the planned dates directly on it by colored sticky notes. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages.

The main advantage of digital IAP is that you have all the data organized and recorded and you can use the structure directly for developing your schedule in the software. You May prepare in advance the structure, headlines or even more detailed schedule data based on your received information, other projects experience or organization knowledge base and during the session just ask the team member to review the data and complete it. However sometimes people complain that with this system just one operator can record the data (probably you as the planner!) and team members are not able to enter the data personally and play with them to find their best plan. This may make some people inconvenient. Moreover it could have negative impact on the efficiency of the meeting. On the other hand using the wallpaper calendars and sticky notes may need a bit more preparation for printing the calendar with the right time frame and sticky notes with different colors for each action holder. Moreover since most of the times people write the sticky notes very quickly in the meeting, reading them after the meeting for you as the planner could be a challenge (You may laugh on it but it has happened for me several times!).

Apart from these pros and cons, at the end which method you will select depends on your personal and organizational preferences. But no matter which method you choose, make sure that you have prepared all the necessary tools and equipment you need prior to the IAP. If you conduct a digital session, a computer with appropriate software, a beamer, an appropriate room for video projection, etc. could be example of required tools. If you prefer traditional way then wallpaper calendar, colored sticky notes, a tape for fixing the sticky notes on calendar and probably a digital camera would be your required items that you need to make sure you have them prepared in advance.   

  •  Send out the invitations. 

Now you are ready to invite people for the IAP. Make sure that the participants receive the invitation at least one week prior to your IAP planned date so they will have enough time for preparing themselves for the meeting. In your invitation letter explain the objectives of the IAP and list the expectations from the participants. Attach the meeting agenda to the invitation letter. If you planned to invite people to the IAP in sequence, mention the timing in the agenda. You may introduce some milestones for the meeting then you can be sure that when you need to achieve which goals in the IAP. It will help you to manage the session more effectively and people know what they are expected to do during the meeting. By sending out the invitation letters you are done with the preparation.

 In the next article I will continue with the “B- In the session”…

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