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Fixed date projects: more advice from the experts

Last week we saw that PRINCE2 doesn’t really have much advice to offer the project manager stuck with delivering to a fixed date.  I also gave you some advice from another expert, J LeRoy Ward at ESI.  Surely some other project management experts have tackled this problem?  I trawled my bookcase for what other people had written on the subject.

Stanley E. Portny, in Project Management for Dummies (don’t laugh, it’s actually pretty good), says that managing this way is ‘backing in’.  Backing in is when you start at the end of the project and work your way backwards calculating task estimates until you reach today.  So you automatically shorten task lengths when you realise you are out of time.  That’s why it is not a good idea.  He points out three major pitfalls of planning this way:

  • “You may miss activities, because your focus is more on meeting a time constraint than ensuring you identify all required work.
  • Your span time estimates are based on what you can allow activities to take, rather than what they’ll actually require.
  • The order in which you propose to perform activities may not be the most effective one.” (p. 92)

Linda Kretz Zaval and Terri Wagner also talk about the practicalities of managing to fixed dates in their book, Project Manager Street Smarts: A Real World Guide to PMP Skills, and I picked out the bit about making the plan fit in my book review last year, long before I knew that this month would focus on fixed dates.  They propose three strategies for reducing the project duration to give you a fighting chance of hitting those dates:

  • Crash the project by reducing the duration of activities located on the critical path, focusing on working out the cheapest tasks to reduce and concentrating on them.
  • Fast-track the project.  This is doing tasks in parallel instead of doing them in series.
  • Calculate the cost per day of crashing the project (which is called slope) – then maybe your stakeholders won’t be so keen on making you hurry along.

Meri Williams’ book, The Principles of Project Management, is another one I enjoyed.  And it talks about dealing with fixed date projects, which it calls set deadlines.  Backing in, fixed date, set deadlines, it’s all the same thing.

“First, work out how much trouble you’re in,” she writes.  “Break down the deliverables, gather the estimates, and decide how much contingency you’d have liked to have.  You work out that the realistic deadline for the Next Big Thing project is actually December 1st.  But now what?  How can you convince management that you need an extra six months in the project plan?

If you’re in a wonderful, supportive work environment, you may choose to tackle this issue head-on.  Go and explain that the deadline is unachievable, that you simply can’t make it.”

Williams predicts that either management will replace you with someone who says they can deliver to their ridiculous timescale.  Or management will offer you more cash and more people in a bid to get it all done on time.

“The most important point is to take the emotion out of the discussion. Get everyone to calm down and face reality, making it about what needs to be done, rather than the emotional reaction of a boss who’s being told she can’t have what she wants, and a team that’s being asked to achieve the impossible.”

And of course my book, Project Management in the Real World, includes a chapter on managing fixed date projects with more advice.  Hopefully you are no longer seriously at a loss now as to where to start with your fixed date project.  Enjoy – sometimes the challenge of hitting the date is part of the fun of project management.

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Inside PRINCE2: Fixed date projects

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Inside PRINCE2

Inside PRINCE2 logoPlanning is an essential part of what project managers do, so you would expect there to be some mention of how to deal with fixed date projects in the PRINCE2 manuals.  There isn’t.  Fixed date projects only get a passing mention in the Managing Successful Projects book, and you’d have to look really hard to find a mention of managing time constraints in the Directing Successful Projects book.

That’s because PRINCE2 expects you to do project management properly, with sponsors who commit to realistic plans and don’t expect you to deliver the world on a plate by Tuesday lunchtime.  Unfortunately, when does any methodology get applied perfectly?  Project managers still need some guidance on how to manage projects that have a fixed date.

PRINCE2 advises that the fixed date time constraint is managed as a planning risk.  It identifies planning risks based on fiscal boundaries (for example, where you can’t move the project budget from one financial year to the next) and also on calendar boundaries (for example, delivering something before the end of the tax year).  It cites the Millennium Bug projects as calendar-bound planning risks, but there have been more recent examples, like last year’s 53 week year which messed up some software.

If you are doing your product based planning properly, you will end up with a schedule that shows exactly how long the project is going to take.  You then take this to the sponsor and ask for agreement.

Project Board members are supposed to make a commitment to provide adequate resources to successfully deliver the project, and time is one of them.  The Directing manual does acknowledge that there are factors that can upset the agreement process.  For example, people may not be available to resource the project adequately to enable it to hit the scheduled dates because they are working on other things.  PRINCE2 advises that the Project Board members decide between themselves how best to meet all the organisation’s commitments and manage competing priorities.

The good news for project managers is that the Project Board are clearly advised by PRINCE2 that their role is to endorse the Stage Plans as realistic representations of the work required to achieve the deliverables.  That is, by agreeing a Stage Plan, they also agree that it is completely possible to do all the work in the required time and they sign up to providing all the resources necessary to make that happen.  They can’t agree a Stage Plan, take away half your project team and then blame you when you can’t get the work done on time.  Has your Project Board done this to you?  Point them to page 26 in the Directing manual which says:  “Project Board members cannot subsequently distance themselves and blame the planners.”  So there.

While there isn’t a lot about managing fixed date projects in PRINCE2, the reason is that you shouldn’t be managing fixed date projects.  PRINCE2 is all about managing in a controlled environment (that’s the C and the E of PRINCE), not one where everyone is rushing around panicking to get things done by a date some executive thought up on the golf course.

If you are expected to manage a fixed date project in a PRINCE2 environment, question how that fits with the method – because it doesn’t fit very well.

I’ll have reviews of both the new Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 and the new Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 books for you in August, as part of this year’s Summer of Books event.  All the Inside PRINCE2 articles are drawn from these texts, which are the PRINCE2:2009 editions.

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Expert advice on fixed date projects

As part of this month’s focus on managing projects with fixed dates, I asked J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, Executive Vice President Product Strategy & Management at ESI International for some advice.

What sort of projects have the delivery date fixed in advance?

Projects that have their delivery dates in advance can be found in every industry vertical and around the world. Key ones are projects that are required by law, such as new tax codes that take effect on at the beginning to the tax year, a court order, a regulation, or other governmental or judicial edict.

Many construction projects have fixed delivery dates if the project is being done in an area where the weather prohibits work before or after a certain date or “season.” Think, Sweden, Antarctica, the Middle East or other places with extreme weather conditions which simply prohibit construction during certain seasons.

Many projects that launch new products will also have fixed dates to take advantage of seasonal activities, buying habits, the phase out of an old product for a new one to avoid overlap. Consider the announcement of iPad. Very carefully timed to coincide with a range of marketing and production moments in time.

Fixed delivery dates are found in any project whose end date is critical to revenue generation, service to a client, or maintaining operations. For example, many telecom projects have fixed end dates. In the case where the telecom “switch” (the computer than runs the phone and data system for a large building or group of buildings) is being swapped out for a new switch, this is often done over the weekend. Outsourcing operations or functions are another good example here. When a company moves to outsource services such as payroll, there is a critical date when everything must be tested and ready to “go live” to ensure continuity of operations.

Quite frankly, most organisations, governmental and non- governmental alike, mandate that projects be done by a date certain. So, these days, project managers are faced with such demands and edicts on all projects.

What are the challenges of managing projects where the delivery date is fixed in advance?

The main challenge is resource availability and allocation in order to get the job done by the fixed end date. When a project’s end date is fixed in advance, the project needs to be planned “backwards.” In other words, the project manager takes the end date and develops a plan of action working backward in time to a start date.  It is hoped that the start date is after the date the analysis is done.  If the start date, based on the plan, falls earlier than the date on which the plan is constructed this means that the project is already late.

In this case, the project team needs to formulate a plan that will actually cause the project to be completed when required.  In short, the project manager needs to compress the schedule to meet the end date if it is physically possible to do so.

In classic PM terms, schedule compression is achieved through two approaches:

  • Fast-tracking, where project activities are done in parallel or with overlap to the greatest extent practicable; and,
  • Crashing, where additional resources are allocated to those activities on the critical path, thus reducing time.

In many instances, the network diagram developed by the project team represents how the project should be done, based on best practice, experience, or desires of the team, rather than how it “must” be done due to physical constraints. For example, it is obvious that you cannot build floor two of a building before floor one is built, but you don’t always have to have the design of a building complete before you start its construction. It is rumoured that Burj Khalifa in Dubai had not completed its design until it was almost complete thus keeping people in suspense to the end as to how tall it actually was going to be.

In reality, and in very tough circumstances, an experienced project manager will employ both fast tracking and crashing simultaneously. Each approach has disadvantages:  fast tracking increases risk because of doing more work concurrently rather than sequentially; crashing, on the other hand tends to increase cost.

Additionally, on certain types of projects, crashing can actually lengthen a schedule because adding more people increases the number of communication channels in a non-linear manner. This is expressed by the formula (N2 – N) /2, where N is the number of people. When adding more people a project manager must put into place a well thought out division of labour. Fred Brooks, father of OS 360 at IBM put it best when he said “adding people to a late software project will only make it later.”

What are your tips for getting these projects right?

The key to success lies in the project manager’s ability to negotiate for the key resources that are going to be required to meet the schedule and making sure they are available when needed. Additionally, project managers need to practice “micro management” more than they otherwise would, or would want to, to make sure they know what the team is doing on a daily basis.  Keeping a close eye on progress and problems is of paramount importance in order to meet the completion date.

How can you convince management to extend the timescale, especially when the date is arbitrary?

The best way to do this is by showing management how much more it will cost to do it by a date certain, as opposed to how much it will cost if planned based on available resources. The question to management is this: Is the time saved worth the cost? With money in seemingly short supply these days, an analysis like this can have a great impact.

You can also show the level of risk introduced by completing on the date that may not exist, or exist to a much lesser extent, if done according to a more realistic plan. Taken together, costs and risks can make a powerful argument for doing things rationally.

J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, Executive Vice President, Product Strategy & Management, ESI International, brings more than 33 years of expertise in project and programme management to the refinement of ESI’s portfolio of learning programmes. He works closely with ESI clients worldwide to guide the assessment, implementation and reinforcement of knowledge and skills that provide for the effective measurement and successful adoption of learning programme objectives.

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The Plan Is Giveaway

Richard Revis is the brains behind The Plan Is, scheduling software that has been designed with fixed date projects in mind.  It is still in beta testing, and the final touches are being put to the software based on customer feedback.  There are still some bugs and quirks to iron out – you can read my review of it here – but overall it is a free, alternative scheduling tool which could help project managers tackling fixed date projects.

Richard, who is currently travelling around the USA and coding on the go, has kindly given me access to his closed beta trial of The Plan Is for 35 of you.  I have:

  • 5 beta accounts which include a free 6 months of premium service after launch.
  • 10 beta accounts which will convert to standard free accounts on launch.

To be in with a chance of winning, leave a comment on this post or send me a message, completing the sentence, “The plan is…”  I will pick the most amusing answers as the winners, so you are at the mercy of my sense of humour!  Responses by 21 February please, and the winners will be notified after that.

That is only 15 accounts, so what about the others?  I’ll be giving these away on Twitter next week, so follow me @pm4girls for details of how to get your hands on those.

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