The Natural Planning Model


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Perhaps my favourite technique from David Allen’s excellent book, Getting Things Done, is something he calls the Natural Planning Model. This is an informal approach to project planning which can be used on projects of any size or type. I have used this approach regularly over the past ten years or so, and even though it often takes only a few minutes, it invariably leaves me with greater clarity on the project, its various parts and how I might proceed.

The five steps are:

1. Defining purpose and principles
2. Outcome visioning
3. Brainstorming
4. Organizing
5. Identifying next actions

1. Defining purpose and principles

Defining the purpose of what you are doing is one of the most important yet neglected tasks in our professional lives. Whenever we are working on something, we are of course doing so for some reason or other, however we often forget the real purpose of what we are doing, and therefore end up spending our time on tasks which aren’t truly important. They keep us busy and we feel that is enough. To help us define the purpose of a project, we just need to ask ourselves – why? Why are we building this new product? Why are we overhauling that website? Why are we looking for a new job? We may think we know the answer, but it helps to spell it out. It provides focus which will help as we progress through the other steps.

Our principles in this context refer to boundaries within which we will operate. These may be self-imposed or external requirements. For one reason or another, we may decide that we must deliver on time, or that our code must be fully unit tested. Maybe it is important that we hold a daily Scrum meeting, or that we use an Oracle database. There are usually a few such non-negotiable principles which we need to adhere to on any project, and which it is helpful to acknowledge and remember.

2. Outcome visioning

Having defined our project’s purpose and principles, we now describe what a successful outcome would look like. The benefits of doing this are similar to those offered by the visualisation techniques employed by top sports performers. By imagining an ideal outcome, we encourage our brains to naturally start working out how to get there. Our vision can include both tangible and emotional outcomes. We might want a fully unit tested and integration tested solution. We may want our client to be blown away by what we deliver. Allen explains how in this step we should envision wild success – imagine the best possible achievable outcome, and more detail is better.

3. Brainstorming

Brainstorming is of course a well established technique for encouraging creativity and coming up with ideas. The objective here is to capture as many thoughts and ideas as possible which relate to the project. If you’re not sure if something is relevant, then capture it anyway. You may want to use a mind-map, or just a simple list. You will probably already have a few new ideas about your project following the first two steps. Typically when brainstorming, one idea will lead to another and before you know it you will have captured many new and helpful ideas. An idea might be as specific as “meet with Roberto to discuss remote access”, or as vague as “architecture”. No idea is a bad idea in this step.

I use workflowy for brainstorming, but you may prefer to use a mind-mapping tool, a pen and paper, or a whiteboard.

4. Organizing

The fourth step is the step that people tend to jump to when they decide they want to plan a project. It consists of breaking your project down into components, prioritising, and figuring out the order in which things need to be done. As with all of the five steps, it is up to you how much detail you go into, but more is better. At the end of this step you should have something resembling an informal plan. It should consist of some tasks which need to be performed, and may or may not include estimates. This process may involve making some decisions which you didn’t actually realise you needed to make. Whilst organizing your thoughts you may realise that there is in fact a lot more to consider in planning this project, or that achieving success may be more difficult than you thought. If this is the case, then at least you are discovering this now and you can do something about it.

5. Identifying next actions

The final step is to decide upon your next actions. If you were to actually get moving on your project now, what would be the next physical action you would perform? There are usually some immediate tasks upon which other tasks in your plan depend upon. “Next actions” are a fundamental part of the Getting Things Done methodology. The idea is that you identify the next actions that need to be performed on a given project, and then you focus on those and forget about the stuff which you can’t yet act on. A next action might be “call roberto to arrange a meeting”, “do more brainstorming re: architecture”, “install SVN” or “set up Scrum board”. Each time you complete a next action, you then need to decide upon your new next action (which of course we all do, whether we follow this model or not), which may simply be the next item in your plan, or circumstances may have changed. In this way you progress through your project, and you may decide to revisit these 5 steps from time to time, to help you take a step back and review where you are.

The Natural Planning Model is a very powerful approach to project planning which I have employed many times. The fact that I keep coming back to it is an indication of how useful it has been in my own professional life. If you have a project on your mind, whether it is a new project or one you have been on for some time, then going through this process may help you gain clarity. If you are feeling stressed about a project, then I would definitely recommend giving this process a try. It is both simple and effective.

To learn more about the Natural Planning Model, and the rest of the Getting Things Done approach to productivity, buy the book.

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