How much detail is too much? Traditional views tend to favour a management approach built on the assumption more detail is better, and to a point this is undoubtedly correct, insufficient detail in a plan of any type is a sure way to fail – ‘just-do-it’ at the overall project level does not help.
But looking at the ‘Coastline Paradox’ and using the length of a coastline as a synonym for the duration of a project suggests there is a point where too much detail is counterproductive.
The coastline paradox states that as you increase the detail by using smaller units of measure, the measured length of the coastline increases. If you use a small enough unit of measure, the length becomes infinite. For a more detailed explanation see: The Coastline Paradox Explained https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coastline_paradox
So, what does this mean for project controls and project management? No one navigating a ship into a UK port would be happy using a map where the smallest measurement was 50 km, significantly more detail is needed, but they do not need absolutely everything about their intended destination. What’s needed is useful information at an appropriate level of detail, the same goes for you, when navigating your car in a strange city.
Finessing project plans to present useful information at the right level of detail is not easy, decisions have to be made!
Take a typical risk register, if you tried listing every conceivable risk, the document would emulate the ‘coastline paradox’, and be of almost infinite length, which means the register is never finished and the project does not start. Conversely, miss one or two significant risks and the project team may have a very unpleasant experience, possibly causing the project to fail. Pragmatic guidelines about the risks to be considered are needed and these have to be tailored to the project. Similar guidelines are needed for the schedule, cost plan and all of the other sub-plans needed for a project.
How much detail do you feel is appropriate for your projects?