Skills in Planning: The Time vs. Quality Opportunity Curve

Ann Forsyth's picture
Recently I've been writing about skills that planners need-the findings from surveys of employers and the key role or writing in the planning skill set. Skills like writing, graphics, data analysis, and the ability to listen are obviously important. As Ethan Seltzer and Connie Ozawa's 2002 survey found, however, several more general skills are also key. I reported these in an earlier blog and they include: working well with the public and with colleagues, being a self-starter, being able to finish work on time and on budget, and understanding public needs.

Many planning schools teach students how to work well with the public and understand their needs but what about being on time and on budget, something increasingly important in the public sector as well as the private?

The diagram below demonstrates the challenges in doing good work on time. This chart shows time along one axis and quality along the other. It is my interpretation of a typical project trajectory. In a bit over one unit of time a planner, or student, can get to a 50 percent quality level. Often students can work at this level achieving passing grades with sub-par work that is very quickly done. The work may not be at a professional level but it can still rate a B or a C. If a student stops here, however, they don't get to experience what it feels like to create the A or A- work needed in an office, at least for important projects. Alternatively, there are often no penalties for getting to a 90-95 percent level of quality (let's call this an A quality level done in a reasonable amount of time) and then spending maybe twice as much time to get to 96-98 percent. In a planning office this extra effort would be a real drain-very little extra quality for a huge investment of resources. This is called being late and over budget.

Opportunity Curve 1


This is not, however, the worst case. Imagine the second diagram, below. In this the quality curve flattens out much faster but a student may still spend a huge amount of time pushing forward. Students, and planners, may spend time on unimportant issues--such as refining some relatively unimportant diagrams or collecting data about minor issues--while not doing the overall job that is needed. This happens when students are not aware of what a high quality products look like and perhaps lack direction as to how to achieve such high quality efficiently. They may lack skills in problem identification and have a hard time seeing the big picture. Some have been rewarded in the past for pure creativity without regard to whether the creativity solves an important and relevant problem. In this case, at the far right of the graph, people end out being late, over budget, and doing work that while taking a lot of time does not demonstrate high quality in overall execution.

Opportunity Curve 2


I try to coach students to hit the 90-95 percent quality level, in a reasonable amount of time as demonstrated in Opportunity Curve 1. More time with little improvement in quality just adds stress. A class experience like a studio or workshop provides a setting for practicing hitting this middle area of the chart. It also can provide skills for recognizing problem situations like the one presented in Opportunity Curve 2 where quality is low in any time scenario.

While the impulse to make the world a better place is a key aspect of planning, doing this efficiently--at a high quality level and on time--is important as well.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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