Skills in Planning: The Time vs. Quality Opportunity Curve

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 <a href="/node/34807" target="_blank">Ethan Seltzer and Connie Ozawa</a>’s 2002 <span>survey found, however, several more general skills are also key. I reported these in an<a href="/node/34807" target="_blank"> earlier blog</a> and they include:</span> 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.

November 1, 2008, 7:49 AM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell.

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