How to Prevent Schedule Slip

November 10, 2010

We’ve All Been There
Have you ever been tasked to a project that missed its deadline? Have you ever managed a project that saw its time line slip? You may be relieved to know that it’s not uncommon. In fact, the complexity of technology projects as a whole has given rise to an unfortunate state of affairs in today’s business environment – deadlines are missed so regularly that it has almost become the norm (1). So, how can IT professionals and project managers reverse this trend in our own place of business and deliver what we promise when we promise it? Obviously, there is no one right answer. But, when deadlines can’t move and time is money, here are two areas on which to focus…

Scope Management
One of the foremost reasons for a project to finish behind schedule is known as “scope creep”. Very often, this one issue alone can be a project’s silent killer and can occur for a number of reasons (2):
1. The original project scope was improperly defined.
2. The customer is demanding and continually asking for more.
3. The project manager is not vigilant in maintaining the scope throughout the project.

All three of these things fall under the domain of scope management and it’s one of the most important aspects of a project manager’s responsibilities. This isn’t to say that the scope should be etched in stone and guarded by the PM at all costs. Rather, changes to the scope should be considered, managed, and a process should be in place to handle them within the project’s original cost and time constraints (2).

Scope changes should be communicated project-wide and stakeholders should understand the impact of the change. In some cases, a feature addition or new requirement may be so important that an extended deadline is acceptable. On the other hand, the mere mention that a scope change may affect the schedule is often enough to make customers reevaluate the cost of such a request.

Agile project management was built almost entirely around the concept of more gracefully handling scope change; it’s something the software development world has dealt with since its inception. Nevertheless, that doesn’t preclude a traditional project manager from being prepared for inevitable changes in scope as well.

Risk Management
It’s obvious that risks in any project can pose a threat to its deadline. Being able to understand, document, and mitigate those risks can significantly reduce the probability that one (or more) will happen and result in a date slip. In fact, by aggressively managing risk, a project manager could potentially shave up to 20% off of a project’s schedule (3).

Risks, like scope, are very rarely fixed throughout the life of a project. Many risks should be identified at the project’s initiation, but a risk register requires maintenance to facilitate proper communication with team members and stakeholders. During a project, it’s expected that new risks will emerge, other risks will recede and active risks will change with regard to their priority and impact. A good risk register will clarify ownership issues to avoid any misunderstandings as well (4).

While risks typically carry with them a negative implication, one aspect often overlooked is the analysis of positive risks. These are the uncertain events that are actually beneficial to your project and taking the time to look for them can sometimes pay off big. You may find that opportunities requiring little investment in time or money can provide a great leap forward for your project (4).

Persistent risk management has a significant side benefit of establishing credibility and trust for a project manager. By recording the risks you perceive and the responses you have implemented, you create a clear track record that no one can deny – even if a major risk happens to derail the project entirely (4).

What Works For You
We’ve only discussed two of the countless methods one can use to prevent a project from slipping. If you’ve managed projects in the past, you’ve most certainly developed your own methods for beating the proverbial buzzer. Every business, project, and stakeholder is different and there is certainly no silver bullet for delivering on schedule. But, by keeping a keen eye on the scope and closely managing your project’s risks, you will undoubtedly increase your chances of a successful project.

By: Jason Cromes

1. The Little Black Book of Project Management pp. 187-188

2. Scope Creep: A Hidden Project Killer

3. Brian Rabon – President, The Braintrust Consulting Group
EE606 – Technical Project Management. In-class lecture. August, 2010

4. 10 Golden Rules of Project Risk Management

One Response to “How to Prevent Schedule Slip”

  1. Mike Gann said

    Many of the projects we’ve done have not included a good scope definition and we consequently remain on the hook even after the agreed upon work is finished as the customer wants to add just a little more since we’re ‘already there’.

    The last couple statements of work I wrote included a fairly (by our standards) rigid scope definition which seems to have served us well in that there’s a defined end to the project and anything beyond that is another contract or SOW.

    Despite our projects typical duration of no more than 1 week, I’ve already started to see a difference in how we wrap up on move on to the next job. It’s actually irked some of our clients – but I suspect that’s because it’s not as easy to slip in their ‘value add’ changes.

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