Using the Natural Planning Model to Improve Projects

Devin Vodicka

In the chaos of a global pandemic, effective project management is more important than ever. As an organization, we are in the midst of managing a number of projects, including cross-functional projects that require collaboration and coordination across multiple teams.  As we are organizing, re-organizing, prioritizing, and re-prioritizing I am often drawn back to when I was a newer school administrator and I had an epiphany that much of my work was to manage projects.  As is my tendency, I immersed myself into research and best practices for project management and quickly found that there are well-established methodologies that can be used to improve the likelihood of success of a given project.  Now, more than twenty years later, I find myself at the stage of practice where much of what I do with respect to project management is automatic, reflexive practice.  In spite of many benefits to that approach, I also know that it can be helpful to step back, reflect, and reorient.  So I’ve been back into the research lately and felt like it might be helpful to share some of the key elements of project management along with some insights that have come along the journey.  

It should also be said that we are now approaching the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While it may always be the case that clarity and wise use of time and resources are helpful, it seems especially necessary when so much of our context has been disrupted, creating stressors and anxiety from legitimate threats to health and safety and also by virtue of social distancing and so many other adjustments.  

First of all, what is a project?  A project is defined as “a series of tasks that need to be completed in order to reach a specific outcome. A project can also be defined as a set of inputs and outputs required to achieve a particular goal. Projects can range from simple to complex and can be managed by one person or a hundred.” In short, anything that requires more than a few steps is a project.  

For example, an email that requires a short response is a task.  An email that leads to conducting research, getting input from colleagues, drafting a response, sharing the draft with your supervisor, revising the draft, and then sending a reply has become a project.  Calling a colleague is a task.  Hiring for an open role, which may include a series of calls as well as scoping the role, posting it on various job boards, completing internal paperwork, and other steps is a project.  Replacing a light bulb is a task, renovating the kitchen is a project.  

With this framing, school leaders are generally managing several projects simultaneously, including (but not limited to!) management of budgets, evaluations of employees, communications with families, facility maintenance and improvements, technology supports, and also any and all initiatives related to improving student learning.  

Getting Things Done: Natural Planning Process

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, references a “natural planning model” for projects that includes a reflection about purpose, identification of successful outcomes, brainstorming, organizing, and then generating a list of next actions.  When time is limited and urgency is high, leaders often are in action mode and, in my experience, this can lead to a tendency to skip steps in the process.  As one might suspect, while conditions may dictate that one goes straight into action, the unfortunate outcome is that such actions can be misaligned, uncoordinated, and actually unproductive.  

This leads to my first insight from years of practice: it takes incredible discipline to set aside time for routine reflection and thoughtful planning.  At my best, I get into a flow of using Friday afternoons for this purpose.  More often it turns out to be a Sunday evening exercise.  Even with this weekly practice, I still find myself realizing that strategic misalignment or a lack of structure that may be impeding my own effectiveness and that of my team and organization.  

My second insight is that lack of clear outcomes will doom any project to failure.  In addition, lack of a vision makes it difficult to determine those outcomes.  With a shared vision and an aligned outcome framework, these prerequisites for success become a given and they set the conditions for productivity.  Without a shared vision and when outcomes are unclear the result is directionless activity.  

Third, the time that it takes to work through the brainstorming and organizing phases is well-spent.  Brainstorming is a generative, creative and creates the space for divergent thinking.  Organizing is working to prioritize the inputs from the brainstorming phase based on a reflection of the purpose and desired outcomes.  The organizing process is by definition convergent and it balances the open-endedness of the brainstorming phase with discipline and rigor.  

Finally, being clear and specific about next actions is essential.  This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.  It is one thing to have big ideas and another thing entirely to translate them into specific tasks that are aligned with the goals of the project.  You say you want to transform learning? Empower students? Reimagine professional learning?  Those are all wonderful aspirations and getting down to a list of steps to make that happen is necessary if you are serious about closing the gap between desired future and current reality.  

Going Deeper

In addition to these reflections on the most important elements of project management, attending to timelines, resource allocations, clear deliverables, and establishing monitoring mechanisms to make adjustments are the next level of considerations.  If you want to go even deeper, developing communication plans, training requirements, policy adjustments, stakeholder mapping, legal analysis, project dissemination plans, and risk management strategies are even more granular aspects of the planning and implementation process.  

Start Small

The depth, breadth, and responsibility of effective project management can seem overwhelming.  Remember that developing skills and expertise takes time and practice.  Start with small steps if you want to improve your abilities to manage projects.  Review the natural planning process and if there are major gaps find ways to fill them in.  Be open to feedback and seek input wherever possible.  Push yourself to make lists of next actions and then be diligent in making them happen.  Where necessary, ask questions about the bigger purpose of these efforts. 

My experience is that where the conditions of success are in place, when resources have been made available, and when collaborative teams come together the odds of success are dramatically improved.  The role of the leader is to set the stage for these achievements.  While this is an ongoing process, remembering the fundamentals of project management has been helpful for me and I am hopeful that you will find it to be useful for you as well.  

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

Use #LCLeadership to share your ideas

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