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A Key Tool of Participatory Management

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to Gert Lüdeking

Technical Reference


Here are recommendations and guiding principles for writing six-month or one-year work plans. This document is written in the context of participatory management. You need to set up an environment where staff and managers can work together to produce the work plan.

The best timing for preparing a work plan is within a few days following a review. For an annual work plan (AWP) this means a few days after the Annual Review (AR). Most importantly, the plan should be printed and circulated among all the participants within a few days of being made. Transparency is vital to participatory management.

In many ways, a work plan resembles a proposal, except that the overall budget may be already approved, or is conditional on the work plan.

As in all planning, whether as a group process or not, you should (1) think backwards, starting with where you want to be at the end of the period, and generate the steps needed to get there from where you are now, and (2) review the four key questions of management and use that as a skeleton for your discussions and thinking.

A work plan is a tool for planning during a specific period of time (6 or 12 months) that identifies the problems to be solved, and ways to solve them. It is a standard management tool. When staff participate in management, they need to learn what it is. In setting up an environment for staff to participate in making a plan, you also set up a learning process.

1. Introduction:

This introduction includes two parts:
  • Who can use this document; and
  • What work plans are NOT.

1.1: Who Can Use this Document:

This set of guidelines is aimed coordinators and managers for working with their staff or clients. The writing of work plans is not specifically unique, however, and the advice contained herein is useful for all planners, managers, and implementors, of governmental ministries, NGOs and private sector organizations.

If you involve staff in generating or designing a plan, then this document can be given to them to assist them in learning things needed to make management a participatory process. The plan is the guide for the organization, and when staff participate in preparing it, they are more likely to "own" it and use it during implementation.

1.2: What Work Plans are NOT:

From the beginning, it is important to get rid of two assumptions about work plans: (a) that a work plan consists only of a budget, and (b) that a work plan consists only of a schedule. Many managers are disappointed when their work plans are rejected when they have made these incorrect assumptions.

Many funding agencies and many executing agencies require a work plan in order to justify the release of funds for the period in question. Because of this, many managers incorrectly assume that the budget is the centre (or only) element of the work plan. Far from it. The budget is necessary, or course, but every item on the budget needs to be justified. That justification is the text of the work plan itself (while the budget is best included as an appendix to the work plan) which is the subject of this document.

The second incorrect assumption is that a schedule is a work plan. A coordinator may struggle to prepare a schedule, listing the tasks to be done, day by day, for the period in question. While a schedule is useful, of course, it is not a work plan (ie it does not state what objectives and outputs are to be achieved, or how, or why). Furthermore, although a schedule can be a desired list of day by day activities, in the real world such precise lists can not be followed. Other urgent tasks come up, unexpected visitors (eg donors or distant VIPs) may show up, planned meetings may have to be rescheduled as the other parties may have unexpected tasks or visitors, and on and on. Rather than a rigid schedule, this document recommends that each of the outputs or objectives have a time period within which the completion date may be expected, which is an organic and flexible approach rather than the mechanical approach to preparing a schedule.

Once these two incorrect assumptions are discarded, then it is possible to go on and prepare a genuine work plan. The following provides guidance in doing so.

2. What is a Work Plan?

A work plan is an argument; it is written to plan the activities for a given period of time, first so as to convince decision makers for its approval, then as a guiding document for the activities to be carried out during that time period. This chapter has three parts:
  • Why Write Work Plans?
  • What is an Argument? and
  • Time Period Covered by a Work Plan.

2.1: Why Prepare a Work Plan?

The purposes of a work plan are several. The main purpose, however, is often forgotten; it is a planning and management instrument (tool) which provides a framework for planning the work, and is a guide during the period in question for carrying out that work. It is also used by funding agencies and executing agencies as a document for justifying the release of money (and this is why the first purpose can easily be forgotten; some managers see it as a necessary inconvenience, rather than a useful tool for their own work). It is also a useful document contributing to transparency, as copies of the work plan can be given to those persons or organizations who have a need or a right to know what you are doing, and why, during the current period.

n some ways a work plan is very similar to a proposal. The difference is that a work plan is based upon a project already approved, and identifies a specific time segment within that project or programme. It identifies (as goals) the problems to be solved, makes them finite, precise and verifiable as objectives, indicates the resources needed and constraints to be overcome, outlines a strategy, and identifies the actions to be taken in order to reach the objectives and complete the outputs. A proposal does much the same, but for the whole time period of the project, and it is written prior to project approval as a justification for approval.

In order to obtain the resources, including the finance indicated in the budget, the work plan serves as justification for the release of funds. When approved, the work plan serves as a guide to actions to be taken in order to reach the objectives, written so as to be transparent to anyone, inside or outside the implementing group, in describing those objectives, and outputs, and justifying the actions to be taken.

A work plan therefore serves the needs of implementors, target groups (beneficiaries), managers, planners, committees and boards and the donors, not only of projects, but also of programmes, and organizations that work independently of project documents.

2.2: What is an Argument?

A work plan is an argument. (1) An argument is a logical order of linked statements, where each one is logically derived from its previous one. The list of chapters described below is a list of kinds of linked statements that together comprise the whole argument.

Footnote (1): Do not confuse this meaning of the word "argument" here with the notion of a quarrel. In Logic, an argument is a series of related or linked statements that together reach a logical conclusion.

To make the argument simple and easy to read and understand, only the argument is put into the text of the work plan, and all accompanying details are attached as appendices at the end of the document.

The work plan, as an argument, can be described as follows: (a) there is a problem, or problems (selected for logical reasons); (b) they call for a solution; (c) the solution is the work plan which includes a list of goals, objectives and actions which are part of a strategy; (d) the strategy is based upon what those problems are to be solved and what resources are available to be converted into solving the problems and what hindrances are to be overcome. The goals and objectives (when accomplished) are the output of the project, while the resources (when used) are the inputs of the project, and the aim of the strategy is to convert inputs into outputs.

2.3: How Long a Time Should A Work Plan Cover?

The optimum length for a work plan is either six months or twelve months. A three month work plan is too short, considering the amount of time and effort needed to prepare the plan. A twenty four month work plan might be too long, because many conditions change during a whole year, and by the end of the year the objectives and priorities may have have all become different. They should follow annual reviews.

This is not a rule written on stone tablets. Needless to say, there may be specific reasons why a work plan should be shorter than three months or longer than six months.

3: The Structure and Content of a Work Plan:

This chapter describes what you should include in your work plan, and how to construct it. It includes the following parts:
  • Abstract or Executive Summary;
  • Introduction and Background (The Problems);
  • Goals and Objectives (The Outputs);
  • Resources and Constraints (The Inputs);
  • Strategy and Actions (from Inputs to Outputs);
  • Appendices (Budget, Schedule and Others).

3.1: Abstract or Executive Summary:

Write this part last, and make sure it is a summary, not an introduction. The optimum size is one or two paragraphs covering a half a page. (See the guidelines on proposals or report writing).

3.2: The Introduction and Background:

In a short work plan the introduction and background can be combined into one short chapter. A long work plan may look better (and is more likely to be read) if they are separated into two chapters.

The Introduction should introduce the work plan. This sounds so obvious when written like this, but many planners and managers get carried away with long, historical and analytical introductions which discourage or bore the readers before they get to the actual planning part of the work plan. Do not repeat or copy much text from the ProDoc or proposal; limit your text here to material relevant only to the period covered by the work plan.

The Background begins a logical argument that leads to the selection of objectives (outputs) that are planned to be reached or attained during the planning period. This section includes the relevant Problems and Issues that should be addressed during the period covered by the work plan. The background should not be a long analysis or history; provide only the issues that justify the choice of objectives for the period of time in question.

The background should contain:
  1. information gleaned from the previous six month or quarterly report, especially the recommendations;
  2. any relevant changes in conditions in the environment that have affected the project, or may affect the project;
  3. any relevant effects or results of project activities that may call for changes in the project design;
  4. relevant paragraphs in appropriate documents, including Policy or Programme documents; and
  5. any other references that will justify your selection of objectives and outputs for the planned period.

The project document (or whatever other relevant document that is used for justifying the objectives identified in your work plan) may be long and may include many separate objectives or outputs. Not all of them need be addressed during the time period covered by your work plan. The background section of your work plan should include logical arguments why you have selected some of them, and why you have not included the others.

You should not copy or repeat the background information of the core document (eg project document, programme document, proposal, or policy paper); that information was useful for justifying the overall project or programme but not for the specific time segment of your work plan. In the background section of your work plan, you should include only information or references that refer specifically to those outputs and objectives you wish to achieve during the period covered by the work plan.

3.3: Goals and Objectives:

In other CMP guidelines (2) it was pointed out that goals, objectives and outputs are different but related things. A goal is broad and general, the solving of the problem that has been identified. A goal can never be achieved or verified as achieved because it is not specific, finite, concrete or verifiable. A goal can point to an objective, in contrast, because an objective is more specific, is finite, has a completion date, and can be verified. Objectives are derived or generated from the goals.

Footnote (2): Look at our document called "Project Design Guidelines," where the relationship and distinction between goals and objectives is explained in more detail.

The work plan should have a logical progression from the introduction and background to the goals and objectives. Where the background explains the selection of the problems to be solved, the goals define the solutions to those problems, while the objectives are more precise, finite and verifiable derivations of the goals.

The Goals for your work plan, as solutions to the problems raised in your background section, must be stated here, then used to generate the specific objectives.

The Objectives should be chosen from among the objectives of the project document (or relevant equivalent, as mentioned earlier), or they should be derived from new problems arising and identified in the previous progress report and described in the background section of your work plan. Objectives are derived from each goal. They should be written down here, and their completion date be identified as some specific time within the period covered by the work plan. See SMART.

Do not necessarily include all the objectives listed in the project document or equivalent. Choose only those objectives which are appropriate for the time period covered by the work plan, and justified in the background (identification of problems) section described above.

The selected objectives of the work plan (or outputs, if they are more specific than the objectives from which they are derived) are the central elements of the work plan. They provide the justifications for the actions to be taken and the costs incurred. They are the core of the work plan. They indicate where you want to get to by the end of the period covered by the work plan.

3.4: Resources and Constraints:

As with the introduction and background, resources and constraints can be one chapter or two, depending upon how long your whole work plan may be.

The Constraints section should identify any restrictions or hindrances that must be overcome in order to reach the objectives. Include also a short description of how you plan to overcome them.

The Resources section should indicate what (potential) inputs can be identified that will contribute to reaching the identified and selected objectives. Do not dwell too much on financial resources, but instead direct the reader to the appendix that contains the budget. Include resources that are not necessarily liquid cash at this time; including staff and other personnel (eg volunteers), partners (organizations and individuals), consultants, land, capital, supplies, equipment, other inventory that can be used, sold or traded, and anything at all that is available to be mobilized and used in reaching the identified objectives.

3.5: Strategy and Actions:

As with other paired sections above, the strategy and actions sections can be put into one chapter or two. Together, they explain how you intend to go about converting inputs into outputs.

The Strategy section of your work plan should indicate how you intend to convert your resources, overcome the constraints, using those identified inputs (resources) to reach the objectives or attain the outputs specified in the previous chapter.

In the best of work plans, several alternate strategies are listed, one is then chosen, and the reasons for the choice is given. Your work plan may not be long, and the provision of alternatives may be left out. Decide if you should include alternatives or not.

Strictly speaking, Actions belong to inputs rather than outputs. Actions primarily belong to strategy because they are the activities that convert inputs into outputs. Where the goals and objectives are among the outputs of (what comes out of) the project, the resources are among the inputs of (what goes into) the project.

Let the action be clearly derived from the strategy, which identifies how the inputs are to be converted to outputs. Each action listed in this section should be related to one of the outputs (objectives, goals), and it should be clear how the described action will contribute to reaching its respective objective.

3.6: Appendices, Including Budget and Schedule:

The text of your work plan include the chapters described in 3.1 to 3.5 above. The purpose of appendices, now, is to supplement that text, ie to provide details that support the argument included in the text. Budgets and schedules are among such details.

The Budget for the work plan should be placed in an appendix, not in the main text of the work plan. Important as it is, it is not part of the argument of the work plan, but is a list of details that supports the argument. It can be the first appendix.

Each of the budget items should relate to one or more of the objectives (outputs). Some budget items (eg transport, postage, photocopying, phones, e-mail) must be arbitrarily divided among several outputs, because they support all of them. No budget item should be included that does not relate to some identified portion of the text of the work plan.

The Schedule of the work plan is optional. Some coordinators feel that they must plan for every day in the period. What is recommended here is that completion dates for each of the stated objectives (or outputs) are listed in order, and that a reasonable length of time be allotted to each; eg one output can be completed on one day between two stated dates, say, a week apart. This is more flexible and reasonable. Dates of actions to be taken are therefore optional.

If there are any other details, such as lists, that are mentioned in the text (the argument of the work plan), they can be included as appendices, where they will not clutter up or clog the argument. These are optional.

The text must refer to each appendix where appropriate. No appendix should be included unless it is referred to in the text. The appendices therefore provide necessary details, but are put at the end of the work plan where they will not hinder the reader from seeing the continuity of the whole argument, and how each of the above described chapters link, one to the next.

4: The Overall Flow of the Work Plan:

Note the inclusion of appendices in the structure and outline of the work plan. These are essential parts of the whole work plan, especially the budget, but they are put into appendices at the end of the work plan for an important purpose.

The text of the work plan is composed of several chapters (introduction, background, goals, objectives outputs, resources, constraints, strategy, actions). Together, these comprise a single argument, and every chapter is related to each of the others.

  • The background identifies the problem(s); then
  • The goal defines solution(s); then
  • The objectives (outputs) refine the goals, specific and verifiable; then
  • The resources and constraints indicate what can and cannot be used to reach the objectives; and then
  • The strategy, along with specific or precise actions, indicates how the inputs will be converted to outputs.
The logic that links these chapters together constitutes an argument.

That argument should be easy to follow, written in very simple vocabulary and grammar, and easy and smooth in linking one chapter to the next. To make the argument more visible, more transparent, details, especially those related to finances (the budget) and other detailed lists, are put into appendices.

Remember, the complete text of a work plan is a single logical argument, with each chapter linking to the one before and after it. The appendices provide details that support the argument, but they are not included in the text so that they will not clutter up the argument.

5. Conclusion:

A work plan is a necessary tool for planning, executing, implementation and monitoring any project, or any ordered set of activities, a project or a programme. It is composed of a logical argument forming the text, and an accompanying set of appendices that provide details to support the logical argument.

This guidelines document has provided some details about the form and content of a work plan, and can be read in conjunction with related guidelines on report writing and proposal writing.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2011.11.27

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