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Project planning tools

Project Management Big Idea

=mc’s new updated version of the systems approach to project management offers you the solution to a range of challenges whether you’re a multi national humanitarian INGO or small art gallery that needs to see every exhibition as a mini-project.

Among the organisations who’ve used the =mc Systems Model are:

Project working is becoming the dominant way of working for many teams, departments and even whole organisations. 

In a fast paced world it’s important to have a process that copes with the complexities of ever changing situations and allows people to collaborate effectively. Projects go wrong for two reasons: people and planning. In this article, we explore tools for managing ‘messy’ projects. We introduce three popular project planning tools, and =mc’s approach – the Systems Model. This last is designed specifically for managers in the not-for-profit sector faced with difficult and ambiguous projects.

Getting started in project planning

Tight deadlines, limited resources, tricky stakeholders and demanding customers – for anyone who has ever managed a project, these things are all too familiar. As a manager you need to deliver high quality projects to meet the specification, stakeholder needs, deadline – and budget. You also need all the help and resources you can get, and central to success is systematic project planning.

This is even more important when you’re in charge of a new and unfamiliar project, that contains a high degree of uncertainty and risk. So how do you go about organising people and resources – and preparing for unforeseen challenges? Your best bet is to use an established project planning model. The question then, is how do you choose the one that’s most relevant to your project?

In this article, we introduce three widely used planning tools (Agile, PRINCE2 and LogFrames) and explain why we have introduced our own – the Systems Model – designed specifically for managers in the not-for-profit sector managing what we call ‘messy’ projects.

Agile Projects

The Agile Manifesto was published in 2001, and was based on early theories around Lean project management. This latter was formalised in the 1950s in Japan in the Toyota Production System. The underlying philosophy of Lean production is the need to focus on adding customer value whilst removing waste in production. Agile was developed 50 years later as a way to ensure projects – particularly software development projects, in the first instance – focus on value and flexibility.

Agile is based on 12 core principles:

  1. Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even in late development
  3. Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
  4. Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
  5. Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
  6. Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
  7. Working software is the principal measure of progress
  8. Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
  10. Simplicity – the art of maximising the amount of work not done—is essential
  11. Self-organising teams
  12. Regular adaptation to changing circumstance

Agile is a useful approach to project management in that it forces regular review, encouraging a more flexible approach – which means as the project progresses changes in stakeholder demands or new information can be responded to. There is a strong customer ethos in this approach.

Agile project management works least well when it’s taken to mean total flexibility, and as a result projects take an unplanned approach. This is not suitable for longer term planning where timescales and budgets are rigid.

Another danger with Agile lies in many not-for-profit organisations attempting adopt the principles in their work more generally. However, it is not the same as delivering an Agile project, and has led to a lot of misunderstanding in the sector about what Agile actually is.


PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments 2) was launched as a project management tool in 1996 (a direct descendant of PROMPTII (1975) and PRINCE (1989)) with a major revision in 2009. Originally designed to stop computer projects drastically overrunning on time and budget, it was adopted by the UK Government’s Central Computing and Telecommunications Agency as a framework for the development and support of all its Information Technology systems. The PRINCE approach is rigorous, with very formalised roles, responsibilities and channels of communication for each aspect of the project. It is ideal for breaking down into manageable stages large and complex projects which run over a longer period of time. The strong responsibility element ensures resource commitment from management as this comes as part of the approval to proceed. It is now the UK’s standard model for project management in many Local Authorities and the NHS.

The model consists of eight processes, which detail what must be done to bring about a particular outcome, including making decisions, gathering information and identifying results:

Starting Up a Project (SU) Setting objectives, establishing an approach and setting up the project team.
Initiating a Project (IP) Planning the whole project in terms of time and resources.
Directing a Project (DP) Determines who authorises each project stage.
Controlling a Stage (CS) Basic project management with a focus on monitoring and reporting.
Managing Product Delivery (DP) Creating, delivering and reviewing the products.
Managing Stage Boundaries (SB) Reporting on the current management stage and planning for the next stage.
Closing a Project (CP) Preparing for the end of the project, evaluation review and sign off.
Planning (PL) Used during all other processes above.

A useful feature of PRINCE2 is the business case – the justification behind the project. Originally only really explored at the start of a project, the 2009 revision has amended it to ‘continued business justification.’ The key advantage of PRINCE2 is that the output and deliverables are clearly defined, and organisational benefits and risks are explicitly outlined.

One of the major disadvantages of PRINCE2 is that it can only work if organisations abide by the key principles – they cannot pick and choose from the methodology. Because of this level of prescription, the model works best in a major organisational undertaking and is not suited to every kind of project

PRINCE2 serves better in project implementation rather than as a planning tool. Because it does not prompt you to consider the business case systematically at the outset, the focus inevitably moves quickly to the deliverables. This can result in a lack of big picture or strategic thinking. In addition, the strong focus on documentation can lead to the  documents becoming an objective, while the project itself falters. This can result in the process can becoming overly bureaucratic and too labour-intensive for smaller projects.

Log Frames

The term ‘LogFrame’ is a shortened version of Logical Framework. It was developed as a tool for strategic planning and adopted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1969. Since then it has been adapted further and is now used widely by INGOs. Part of this popularity is less to do with its effectiveness and more to do with its link to funding agencies.

LogFrames combine both a top down approach of identifying the activities in a project with a rigorous risk and assumptions analysis. They do this by cross-referencing seven key areas in a 4×4 matrix:

Project summary Indictors of achievement Means of verification Important risks and assumptions

The terms in the matrix above can be defined as:

  • Goal/Objective:why are we doing this project?
  • Purpose:what results do we expect, what will the impact or effect of our project be?
  • Outputs:what are the deliverables?
  • Activities:what needs to be done in order to deliver the outputs?
  • Indicators of achievement:how will we know we have been successful?
  • Means of verification:what sources of data are there to check our results/progress? E.g. documents, surveys
  • Risks and assumptions:what assumptions about external factors underlie the structure of our project and what are the risks inherent in those assumptions?

The strength of a LogFrame is that it can be used as a participatory tool in project planning. And it’s simple, capturing all the project aims and objectives on in one place to be understood at a glance. LogFrames also force you to think through the structure of a plan. Its simplicity should promote transparency in both the approach and the use of funds.

Unfortunately, because it is used by so many funding agencies, it is often seen as a funding-bid tool rather than a planning tool – and then the a danger is it becomes a ‘tick box’ exercise. The risks are that your hard work leads to either a meaningless document – or worse – an inflexible blueprint. The rigidity of the structure also means it can be slow to adapt in a changing environment.

Ok, so none of the models are perfect, but is there a project management model which can meet all your project needs? Well, we believe that there is. We designed the Systems Model as a blended approach – a flexible planning tool suitable for all types of projects, encompassing all the considerations of Agile, PRINCE2, and LogFrames.

Systems Model

=mc’s Systems model was originally developed by =mc for a major UK humanitarian agency to help them manage the challenges they faced when dealing with refugees after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. They then adapted it to a range of situations – from fundraising to campaigning. Since then this powerful model has been adopted and adapted by many leading charities, public bodies and others as a simple but effective way to plan and deliver projects.

Much of the work of the not-for-profit sector is based around ‘open’ or ‘messy’ projects. These are projects where the outcome may change during the project cycle and/or may involve multiple considerations and needs.

The Systems Model clearly emphasises defined success criteria linked to both the output and the purpose, with a consistent focus on reviewing and monitoring along the way. In this sense it is very different from PRINCE where the ‘how’ often takes over, and LogFrames where the emphasis is on sticking to the predetermined framework. It is also different from Agile, with the emphasis on planning outcomes at the start, as well as reviewing on a regular basis. The Systems Model also emphasises the importance of stakeholders, constantly asking the question, “Who is this for and is it meeting their needs and interests?”

Based on systematic thinking, developed by Ralph Coverdale, the Systems Model is about:

  • ensuring you are clear on the information you do and don’t have before you start planning and allocating activities and resources


  • recognising that there is likely to be greater uncertainty in projects which are ‘messy’ or ‘open’

=mc Systems Model graphic

There are four stages prompting you to plan and review systematically throughout the project process:

Stage 1
Rationale The logic of the project consisting of:
Driver – what is the reason we are doing this project? What is the problem or opportunity it is addressing?
Task – what are we going to do?
Purpose – what do we hope to achieve? What will the project change?
Stakeholders Who has ultimate accountability? Who are the stakeholders and what are their concerns? Who else is affected?
Results What will we achieve and what will change? How will we measure success? Who is this result important to?
Stage 2
Risk What could happen or go wrong? What can be done to prevent it? If we can’t prevent it what can be done to mitigate the negative impact?
Resources What do we have available? What else do we need and what impact will having or not having that resource make on the project?
Activity Planning What activities have to happen, by when, and who will carry them out? In what sequence do the activities have to happen?
Stage 3
Deliver What decisions need to be made about who should be on the team and how the team works together? Consider delegation, cooperation, coordination etc. How will you track whether the purpose is still valid and meets the interests of the stakeholders? And how do you implement changes to the process?
Stage 4
Evaluate Evaluating the success of the project. Have you delivered the outputs and outcomes you set out to? What could we have done differently to improve task or process?  How will we share our lessons to ensure we improve next time?

The =mc systems model offers a number of advantages over other project planning and managing approaches:

  • Faster project design: a flexible shared model gives everyone a common language for planning – ensuring projects are planned quickly
  • Enabling joint working: using the model allows teams to work on joint projects quickly and in a coordinated way – avoiding disputes
  • Breaking down silos: with a shared approach you can more easily create cross-working opportunities between teams and departments
  • Tackling large and small projects: the process can handle a large project – an office move – or a small one – planning an annual report
  • New ways of working: the robust thinking needed for a systems approach means new ways of working often emerge – not just BAU (business as usual)

Whereas other models tend to focus on project implementation from the start, the Systems Model is used to pin down the focus of ‘open’ projects as you go along. This means it can be used at the front end of other planning tools to help feed into them. It also helps to save precious time and resources. The focus on the logic and rationale, especially in terms of stakeholder needs, ensures the project is aligned before time and resources are committed. Or it ensures the resources are properly allocated to address the need.

The greatest strength of the Systems Model lies in its adaptability as a thinking tool to all types and sizes of project. By providing an integrated and flexible approach to your whole workload, it is as easily applied to initiating a community regeneration project as it is to creating a fundraising product.

Comparison of tools

Here’s a summary of the project management tools we’ve reviewed to help you decide what might be best for you:

Agile PRINCE2 Log Frames =mc Systems Model
Rigorous for large projects 🙁 🙂 🙂 🙂
Easy to use with small projects 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙂
Suitable for open projects 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Designed for ‘soft’ or ‘messy’ projects 🙂 🙁 🙂 🙂
Flexible and adaptable 🙂 🙁 🙁 🙂
Focus on the needs analysis 🙂 🙁 🙂 🙂
Emphasis on monitoring and evaluating 🙂 🙂 🙁 🙂

What’s next?

If you’ve found this article helpful and you would like more information, please call +44 (0)20 7978 1516 and speak to one of our experienced learning and development consultants. We can help create a project management approach that works for your organisation.

Or, why not book our Project Management training programme for in-house learning? Learn a range of systematic project planning tools, including how to use the systems model.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...