For many projects today, the end dates of the project are set before the project begins. This date may be due to an internal company event such as the high selling season for a retailer or any external event such as a national or international conference where the results of a project are presented. In both cases, the projects start with a hard schedule constraint date. In many cases, the setting of this date is a management technique intended to motivate the project team to deliver within a designed timeframe.
At the outset of the project, the project manager works with the team and defines the project plan. This plan could be in a project management tool and follow a waterfall like methodology or an agile tool where sprints or iterations are defined. Given the end date constraint, the plan contains intermediate milestones to define progress with the project manager tracking and reporting on this progress. In some cases, the intermediate milestones get pressure and some may slip out to the right. Assuming the milestones are on the critical path, the launch or go-live date also begins to slip but with the hard completion date it cannot.
In these situations, we begin to get schedule compression with the project manager reporting the slippage and anxiety begins to grow. As the anxiety and schedule pressure builds, people look for creative ways to keep the project moving so the completion date holds. One of the so called creative ways is to move forward with the next phase of the project while the previous phase continues. Sometimes this is justified as more parallel work or because the schedule says the project should move forward at this date. Where this is most seen is the transition between finishing up development and a formal test phase like User Acceptance Testing (UAT).
When projects attempt to Run before They Crawl, the project spirals downward. How often do we heard of projects with hundreds of critical bugs in UAT or ones where the test phase takes months to complete and was scheduled for 2-4 weeks. These are instances that for sake of schedule, the project artificially moves forward before it is ready. Running before you Crawl is a common cause of RED projects and dissatisfied customers.
We all know that hard end dates for projects abet undesired are a part of this profession. We work to minimize the number of instances of this occurring but we all have to work within these boundaries especially when our customers need us to meet dates. So how do we prevent running before we crawl?
For me, it comes down to effective planning and monitoring from the outset of the project, the first day. Getting a solid project plan whether it is waterfall, agile, Six Sigma, or any methodology or hybrid is essential the first week. As a consultant, I usually have an initial draft for customer review at the kickoff meeting. Knowing full well the plan does not include customer tasks and will be modified but having it available first thing sets the stage for the project as a whole.
In this plan, there should be incremental milestones that have demonstrable product as a deliverable. The agile and iterative methodologies have this built into each sprint. The emerging product is shown to the customer to both relieve anxiety but also push the development team. The teams should have a deployable product at the end of each sprint. The astute project manager will also front load the critical and end to end functionality. If the project is eCommerce, front load the interfaces to Order Management and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) as well as the product search, CART, and Checkout functionality. Having an end to end working solution even if just the absolute basics, positions the project and customer to succeed. If the other functionality begins to slide to the right, the customer management has a viable choice of how much functionality is needed to meet the deadline. This is a far better position than having extensive product searching or promotions functionality without the capability to purchase.
With each incremental milestone that occurs, these milestones must be achieved. All too often, we make the assertion the time can be made up later. This is very rarely the case and a prudent PM will not take this assertion as a strategy. Pushing to meeting each milestone can create friction in a project team, but once they understand that many smaller and shorter pushes are much easier than the enormous longer push that has a missed deadline hanging over it, the project team can get into a steady rhythm that makes everyone from the project team to the customer sponsors comfortable and happy.
By focusing on incremental milestones and setting a project culture that deadlines however small are not missed, the project teams are much happier and the projects are not put into a position of trying to run before they crawl. Hard deadlines are a part of the Project Management profession even the ones that are externally imposed so we need to take measures at the project outset to ensuring the success of our customers.