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How to Manage Fixed Date Projects

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What is a fixed date project?

A fixed date project is one that has a defined — and often unmovable — end date for delivery. Hitting the date is compulsory, which means we can’t plan the project as we would normally do using best practice scheduling techniques.

Here are some examples of fixed date projects:

  • Legal and compliance projects to help the business comply with things like new regulations introduced on a certain day
  • Construction work where the project is happening in an area where there are weather constraints on certain dates such as Antarctica or the Middle East
  • Product creation where the launch date has already been published
  • Client projects where the date is a contractual requirement
  • Projects that need to be timed to fit around certain events e.g. holiday seasons or phasing out an old product.
  • Weddings — in fact, event planners are excellent at managing fixed date projects because every event has a fixed date on which it will take place and the project to deliver the event has to be done on time.

“Fixed delivery dates are found in any project whose end date is critical to revenue generation, service to a client, or maintaining operations,” said J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, and PMI Eric Jenett Project Management Excellence Award winner, when I asked him for his view.

“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.”

The challenge with fixed date projects

Projects with fixed end dates present a different type of planning challenge for project managers. Instead of being able to analyze and plan, you are told what to do and when to do it by.

The analysis part of planning has to take on a different spin when your implementation time is already ticking away.

“The main challenge is resource availability and allocation in order to get the job done by the fixed end date,” said Ward.

How to plan a fixed date project

Whatever the reason for the time constraint, the planning approach for time-bound projects should start off in exactly the same way as for those without time constraints.

Work out the end date ignoring the fixed delivery date, even if you do have to crash your analysis time into a shorter period and use estimates with a greater degree of uncertainty than normal.

This is called doing a forward pass through the plan.

If your schedule shows that you can deliver before the expected date, that’s great. If not, move into proactive planning mode and get creative to find a way to deliver on time.

It is rarely impossible to deliver on time, given the right amount of resources, an unlimited budget and a tightly controlled project scope, but projects seldom meet these criteria.

With fixed date projects:

  • plan creatively to slash time out of the schedule, and
  • get the support of your sponsor for when you have to steamroller through the office bureaucracy.

There’s very little in PRINCE2’s approach to managing fixed date projects, or in any other project methodology or standard I’ve come across so I’ve gathered together some best practice advice for making sure you hit your delivery dates if those dates are handed to you without negotiation.

4 Ways to manage your schedule with a fixed date

There are 4 ways to manage the schedule of a project with a fixed date constraint:

  • Back in your project
  • Crash the project
  • Fast-track the project
  • Renegotiate the fixed date.

Let’s look at each of those.

1. Back in your projects

Stanley E. Portny, in Project Management for Dummies (don’t laugh, it’s actually pretty good), says that managing delivery dates 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 realize 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)

Do a backward pass through the plan, starting at the end date and working backwards to see how much of the original scope you can fit in, but be aware of what impact backing in is going to have.

Be prepared to have some difficult conversations with stakeholders about why you can no longer do everything in the scope.

2. Crash the project

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. 

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. This is often done by putting more people on the project so the work gets done faster.

Compress the critical path and you’ll bring the project’s end date forward.

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.

“Crashing can actually lengthen a schedule because adding more people increases the number of communication channels in a non-linear manner,” said Ward.

“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 labor. 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.'”

3. Fast-track the project

Fast-tracking the project means doing tasks in parallel instead of doing them in series.

Take another look at your project plan and identify tasks that you could reasonably do in parallel with other activities, even if in an ideal world you would choose not to.

For example, you could start user testing before the build is fully complete on a new mobile app, as long as you appreciate that some features being tested won’t actually exist yet. Or bugs might be uncovered that should have been spotted in regression testing and there might be further rework to do.

The risk with doing tasks in parallel is that you could end up having to do rework and there’s a cost associated with that.

4. Renegotiate the fixed date

Meri Williams’ book, The Principles of Project Management, is another one I enjoyed. 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.

She writes:

First, work out how much trouble you’re in. 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?

She continues:

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.

It’s worth a try, right?

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,” she writes.

“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.”

How to convince management to extend the timescale

So how can you convince your boss that the project needs more time?

Well, if it’s a regulatory requirement to be compliant be a certain date, then you aren’t going to win any points by asking.

But if you honestly think there is scope for moving the date — and experienced project managers often tell me their delivery dates were made up by a manage above them in the food chain who has no idea of the work involved — then lay it all out on the table.

“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,” said Ward.

“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.”

He added that you can also show the level of risk introduced by completing on the date — risk that may not exist, or exist to a much lesser extent, if the project continues along a more realistic plan. “Taken together, costs and risks can make a powerful argument for doing things rationally,” he said.

How to stay on top of your schedule

“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,” said Ward.

“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.”

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of micro-management but I have employed it as a technique to keep the team on track and focused on the right things when we’ve been up against a deadline.

More tips

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.

A version of my interview with J. LeRoy Ward was first published in 2010.

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how to manage fixed date projects

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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