Fast Track Project Planning

Fast Track Project Planning is a technique project managers can use when the sponsor pressures them to start work quickly.  Sponsors often voice these complaints about planning:

  • “I don’t want you to waste a lot of time on meetings and paperwork. Let’s start work!
  • “We can plan this project as we go.  So start work now!”
  • “We need to be flexible and able to change the plan at a moment’s notice. So start working on it!”

    Dick Billows, PMP
    Dick Billows, PMP
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Obviously, you need a way to respond to these demands because many hyperactive sponsors won’t listen to arguments about the value of thorough planning.  There are two possible responses.

Fast Track Project Planning Situation #1: “Fast-food Drive-Thru”

First, you can adopt a “Fast-food Drive-thru” project planning approach. Here’s how it goes: the PM is working at the drive-thru window of a burger joint. The sponsor pulls up to the window and says, “I’m hungry.” Instantly, the PM and team slap burgers, chicken and fish on the grill and toss fries and chicken nuggets into the frying vat. They certainly do start work fast! However, we will waste a lot of that food because it isn’t what the sponsor wants. The same is true on a project we start this way. There is a lot of wasted time and resources. It will also take longer to deliver the project’s scope because the PM doesn’t find out what that is until the work almost done.  PMs use this fast food approach all the time because it allows them to satisfy the sponsor’s demand to start work quickly. That creates a happy sponsor…in the beginning.

The main benefit of the Fast-food Drive-thru project planning is that the project manager and team can start work quickly. They sometimes can begin within just hours of the executive having the idea for the project. The project manager may think this technique makes them responsive to the needs of senior management. Nevertheless, the time to judge the level of sponsor satisfaction is at the end of the project, not the beginning.

Some executives also feel that project planning is a waste of time and that starting work quickly is admirable. In truth, projects started this way waste money and usually finish late. They also produce deliverables of questionable quality. Executives who favor this “start fast” approach also usually have abysmal records of accomplishment in terms of the success of the projects they sponsor.

Fast Track Project Planning Situation #2: (Design/Build)

This Fast Track Project Planning approach is a better way to deal with impatient sponsor demands or to handle projects that you must launch in the midst of a crisis. You develop a partial project plan and then begin work on the first of the major deliverables. You plan the remaining major deliverables as you work on the first. The key to this technique is having hard-edged definitions of the acceptance criteria for the all of the major deliverables. Working from the top down, you tightly define the project scope and 4 – 7 major deliverables. You have to know with great precision the path that you’re going to take from where you are now to the end result the sponsor wants.  Having crystal-clear, quantified acceptance criteria is the key to avoiding work that you must scrap. This technique lets you compress the time for the project planning process and start work more quickly because you aren’t waiting to complete the detailed planning on the major deliverables that you’ll will work on later.  This approach is very different from not doing planning at all. The sponsor has to commit significant time to doing the high level planning.

This technique is widely used in the construction industry and it substantially reduces the duration of projects. It also carries some risks for the project manager and sponsor. As you detail the plan for the first of the major deliverables, you are depending on the accuracy of the deliverable descriptions for the remaining major deliverables and the project as a whole. If those change or are inaccurate, we will waste a lot of the work on the first major deliverable.

The sponsor and stakeholders need to understand the risk inherent in this FastTrack planning. You will start work on the first major deliverable earlier than with a classic planning approach. However, the risk of major cost and duration overruns is very real if the definitions of the later major deliverables are not reliable. Executives are always interested in starting work fast but they need to sign off on the risks inherent in this FastTrack approach. They also need to understand that it is their job to define those major deliverables.

Fast Track Project Planning: Details 

When you start describing this approach to the project sponsor and stakeholders, you need to make a couple of points clear. The project duration reduction is not free. It comes at the cost of less precise data in the beginning and a higher risk of cost and duration overruns. Because you aren’t developing a detailed plan for the entire project, your duration and budget data will be less precise when you start work. You shouldn’t use this Fast Track approach if you need great precision on either of those metrics.

The Fast Track Project Planning approach also requires an accurate definition of the deliverables. Stakeholders who are accustomed to a shoddy project planning process and many change orders will be surprised at the commitments they must make about what they want. It is much more expensive to change in midstream with the FastTrack approach than with a traditional project planning approach where you have completed plan for the whole project before you start work.

The way to reduce the risk inherent in the Fast Track Project Planning approach is to complete the detailed planning on the remaining deliverables immediately after you start work on the first major deliverable. Stakeholders often want to walk away from the project planning effort after they plan that first major deliverable and work has started. You need to be very clear that this is not the time to delay the planning or delegate it to subordinates. The further work progresses on the first major deliverable the more expensive changes become. That’s because you have more work you may have to scrap if there are major changes in the remainder of the project.

In summary, Fast Track Project Planning approach is a valuable technique for project managers to master because it often meets the needs of the organization and executives for rapid project planning.

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on