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The case for product-based planning - CITI
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The case for product-based planning

One of the difficulties many people encounter with the plan and planning is the question of what to use as the comparator in the case for product-based planning? What should I base my milestones on? How will I know, definitively, where I have got to, or what state I am in, at any one point in time?

Since, for many projects, human resource is the main cost heading (excluding capital expenditure), and it is they that undertake all the work, it is tempting to try and assess their performance. This is notoriously difficult and, frequently, wildly inaccurate. Even with the best will in the world and without the usual ‘optimism bias’ that many suffer from, it is very hard for an individual to accurately assess their own progress in most instances. This is probably because the expenditure of effort and the satisfactory completion of work are not tightly corelated. For example, if your e-mail inbox contains 20 unread items and you spend half an hour addressing 19 of them you might be tempted to think you are 95% complete and report your status as such. However, the one unanswered e-mail might represent two and a half hours of hard work with the potential for further delays. If the latter is the case, then we should only claim we are about 15% complete even though we’ve addressed nineteen of twenty e-mails. The last five percent of the volume of mails represents nearly 85% of the ‘work’ when we think of work being the effort expended. Such a problem is compounded by the fact that many people defer complex or time-consuming tasks until they ‘have the time to do them.’ This results in ‘back-loading’ of tasks that, because of their very nature (complex and time-consuming) are prone to over-run in any event.

Many approaches alight on the use of task completion as an approach. The point at which work is concluded is frequently used to base milestones on. This appears sensible if you can take completion as a successful finish point, not always the case. Clearly, whether you attract a pass or fail certificate, at some point you will complete testing; but it seems obvious that the progress is not as hoped if the result of testing was a failure. So, neither the monitoring of effort invested, nor the completion of tasks gives a reliable indication of progress or the current situation.

Following proper product-based disciplines and understanding the hierarchical breakdown of products (typically via the product breakdown structure [PBS]) allows one to pin-point the steps in the building, or acquisition, of the product such that emphatic evidence of actual progress can readily be established and managed against. For example, we clearly don’t have the house until all the bricks have been laid; however, we can set milestones, evidencing progress against purchase order for bricks being raised, bricks on site, bricks up to first floor level and bricks up to roof-plate level.

The same principle applies to all projects. Given that the remit of projects is to deliver products and to achieve this they are required to generate or acquire sub-products, then using the sequence, timing and quantity of those products is a crystal-clear approach to knowing what progress we’ve made.

So, it’s not just that the scope of a project is its product set that makes product-based planning so effective; it is that it provides a hard, tangible, physical suite of evidence of progress against that scope’s attainment for the manager to be able to exert appropriate control against.

There are numerous other ‘spin off’ benefits to using a product-based approach to the planning and management of the project. Amongst the most telling are that it forces a focus on the requirements and the customer/user’s satisfaction as expressed through the acceptance criteria, this is an important area of consideration in terms of ensuring the benefits can be achieved post-project close.

Earned value management becomes very much easier and more reliable if the value is clearly attached to the deliverables rather than estimates of effort expended on their creation.

Quality management, expressed through satisfaction of the acceptance criteria, also becomes more assured.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, but it does make a strong case for the evidence and progress based plan that rises from product based planning, rather than moving directly to focusing on task sequences.


CITI develops and evolves the project, programme and portfolio management capability and talent available to organisations to deliver change. We are a single destination for clients who want to improve their organisational capability development in order to deliver change more successfully.


Our team of consultants are highly qualified to help organisations successfully manage transformation programmes, complex projects and the change impacts that result. Indeed, within our project management consultancy they have all been in senior roles across diverse organisations, managing change through programmes and projects.


Our management training courses include – masterclasses, accredited / qualification-based training courses and CITI’s own Beyond Method learning events. All are specifically designed to improve the leadership skills, capability and talent within those organisations that depend upon programmes and projects to thrive, change and innovate.


With the promise of more predictable delivery and benefits achievement, having the right people in the right place at the right time is the key to success. This involves recognising, and then realising, the full potential of individuals and teams by using our project management capability assessment framework services.


CITI Limited is one of the first, and longest standing, niche consultancies that has led the charge in developing change and project management thinking and essential supporting tools. These are consistently used to assist very capable and intelligent people within a variety of sectors (including IT, communications, financial services, government, and the infrastructure sector), who are undisputed experts in their own disciplines, but need understanding of the project world and how to successfully implement change and new ideas both effectively and efficiently.

Nick Dobson

Nick Dobson, Principal Consultant

Nick is a highly experienced consultant in project and programme management and the sponsorship of such initiatives.

A practitioner, with over 25 years of experience, he has been deeply involved in projects, throughout the lifecycle, as well as discharging operational management functions in a variety of sectors. Nick can be contacted via email at