Is it possible to "over plan" a project?

I keep diving deeper into the scope and WBS of this project, developing a plan with potentially a huge amount of detail. Is it possible to "over plan" a project?
This is a good question, without a truly definitive answer. What you really want to do is find the sweet spot for planning. On one hand having a great deal of detail helps reduce project risk and define the effort in explicit terms. On the other, too much detail can cloud the real work of the project, missing the forest for the trees. Doug DeCarlo, a project management expert and early contributor to ProjectConnections, once remarked:
"One of the conclusions I've come to is that a lot of planning is a dangerous thing, because we can end up believing the fiction that we create—and some people actually do and so they hold people to the plan. This is an informal survey on my part, but the greater your level of education in project management, the closer you are to becoming a PMP and having a Ph.D., so to speak, in project management, the more likely it is that you will be very dogmatic about keeping the plans. You will even end up educating yourselves more so that you have more planning and controlling tools at your disposal. This can backfire. You end up restricting the possibility of being successful if you have a lot of power on a project because you're not as fluid as you need to be. Your energy gets devoted to—and drained by—resisting the way things really are. And instead of getting you closer to the goal, you're actually putting more obstacles in the way and you don't realize that that's been happening. It becomes self-defeating."

Other participants in this same forum tended to agree that there is a sweet spot for the right level of planning, which depends at least in part on the team make-up. For example, how seasoned is the project team? Teams that have been working together for a while need less explicit planning, but new teams or teams with high turnover need more. Teams with communication issues or problems—distributed teams, different organizational cultures, "not invented here" barriers, etc.—need more explicit planning.

Finding the sweet spot for your project and your style will take some experience. We all tend to start out with too much detail, when available, early in our career. Later, we learn that it becomes impossible to maintain that detail as the project progresses, or we become a slave to plan maintenance. That robs us of the critical interaction and "management by walking around" that truly demonstrates leadership, identifies risks earlier, and enables team success.

If you'd like to read more from the discussion panel mentioned above, see "Is Project Planning Dead?" in our interviews section.

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