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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 (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, , 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, , 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.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and 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.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


  1. David Whelbourn says

    3 January, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Review DSDM for guidance on managing fixed date projects. This is achieved by using the scope tolerance and the MoSCoW prioritization (which comes from DSDM). I have managed several projects with fixed end dates and generally used MoSCoW to ensure they are successful.

    Within Software projects generally if you are on time you will be on budget (because within these types of projects the bulk of the cost is people).

    One of the most effective backed in project organizations I saw was exhibition organizers. They have a repeating script and work based on “weeks to show” i.e. 22 weeks to show these are the deliverables and activities I have to complete.

    • Elizabeth says

      4 January, 2011 at 5:49 pm

      I interviewed Keith Richards about DSDM at the Agile conference last year. You can watch the video on my Gantthead blog, The Money Files.

  2. Elizabeth says

    21 February, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Hello Craig
    There are lots of ways to get the project to fit the time, and the points you have raised here are excellent. I think people forget sometimes that we project managers only deliver what other people want. If the stakeholders don’t want something, why would we deliver it? This conversation with stakeholders is at the heart of the scope/cost/schedule balance. Whatever is most important to them – hitting the date, the budget or having a fully-featured product – is the constraint we will work to, although in reality it is likely to be a mix of all of them. Tactical versus long term is a great approach to finding this balance, but the team then has to factor in a Phase 2 to replace the tactical solution with something that will be robust enough to last in the long term. And in my experience that doesn’t always happen, and project customers get stuck with the short term solution for longer than they would like. Another conversation with the sponsor to make sure this actually happens!

  3. Craig Brown says

    19 February, 2010 at 2:43 am

    Hey Elizabeth

    I find this discussion interesting *but*

    At the top level the real challenge is finding the right scope, cost, schedule balance. Scope in this conversation includes quality. And we’ll put aside hiring more or better people for now as in many instacnes the ramp up in hiring new people or other constrants make this a difficult avenue to pursue. And besides, if the problem were simply the number of people working on the solution that can managed into the plan.

    That leaves us with managing scope to fit the schedule.

    And embedding quality into scope means you then have two options.

    1. Work out which solution components can be abandonned or deferred.
    2. Work out which solution components can be addressed with a tactical versus long term solution.

    The first is fairly well know, and approaches like ranking requirements help work out where the real minumum capability threshold is.

    The second requires a fairly in depth discussion with the solution designers, programmers and analysts on the team. Every part of a solution has the potential to be a sophiticated and re-useable peice or to be a short term tactical one that needs to be replaced in 12 months.

    This second discussion requires substantial domain knowledge from both the technical and business value perspectives and is hard work. In my experience this is the best place to go to look for solutions to the constrained schedule.


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