CXO

How to address project scheduling difficulties

With every project comes the risk of scheduling conflicts that can create unforeseen complications. Hear from a few project managers about how they avoid these situations.

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Image: iStock/Rawpixel

The types of scheduling obstacles companies are likely to encounter can vary quite a bit, but there are some that may be more frequently encountered. For instance, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder of H2R Product Science says inaccurate expectations can often be at the root of scheduling difficulties and that "...leadership usually has an expectation of what the project will do and how long it will take. Often times, that expectation is wrong." She believes underestimating a project's scale and complexity when trying to find a solution is of significant concern. Holly goes on to say "the biggest issue is when leaders think they have it all understood and aren't ready to hear the ways in which the plan needs to change."

Sarah Meerschaert, a project manager at CenTrak, believes "it's often difficult to estimate the duration of tasks and the amount of lead time required before a given task can start." She says sometimes team members may, in error kick-off their own tasks, even though there are conflicting scheduling dependencies. Sara also mentions, another factor that can impact schedules is personal optimism or pessimism: "An optimist may tell you a task will take three days, while a pessimist might tell you the same task will take three months."

At Rosh Metal Ltd, Alex Bar, HR and Operations Officer, says delays can be caused by anything, especially in the company's welding work which is affected by weather. Based on his experience, the potential for risk increases when there are more people involved. Even sub-contractors being overcommitted on other projects can spill over into other projects and create scheduling conflicts and unpredictable results.

How can some of these scheduling issues be resolved?

When it comes to addressing expectations, Hester-Reilly says H2R Product Science focuses on regular communication with stakeholders about what's known and unknown. She utilizes visuals to show the complexities in the problem and in the technology that her team builds. In the planning stage, Hester-Reilly walks her teams through a technique similar to agile planning poker, to improve work estimates. The goal is to help her teams identify various projects they've done and assign a value, then they look at the work planned and do a comparison.

How did this advance their project scheduling? In one of the projects, her team was able to make a drastic change in scope for the initial release. "We had a goal of releasing in one and a half months from this exercise, and we had to cut scope to less than half of the initial plan," she said. Later, in order to cut the original scope down to within one year, they kept a fixed scope and used the same planning technique, but adopted a flexible team size. "From this, we were able to show that we needed to grow the team three times in order to meet our goal. We got the approvals, grew the team, and they delivered on that scope commitment within the year," says Hester-Reilly.

Meerschaert says that in order to keep on schedule at CenTrak, she pays close attention to timelines and monitors the team's work to help quickly identify if tasks were over- or underestimated before the project goes off the rails. She's also had much success by using effective communication to rephrase her questions during planning meetings: "Instead of asking my team members how long a task will take, I ask them for their best case scenario, their worst case scenario, and then ask them, 'Assuming this task is delayed, what would have held it up?'" In her experience, this helps her team to more readily identify potential bottlenecks and develop more realistic schedules. She finds these efforts help keep project stakeholders more invested in scope than time line.

To prepare for schedule delays due to overcommitted resources, Bar from Rosh Metal recommends making sure you have identified other vendor/subcontractor options as a backup.

What were the lessons learned about project scheduling?

At H2R, Hester-Reilly says they have two key takeaways:

  1. "As long as we are in the business of building new and innovative things, and especially if we want those to be built in a scalable and usable way, we need to remind ourselves that every estimate of how long it will take to build is just an estimate."
  2. "Many people are not used to working without a goal date or deadline, and many think the deadline is needed to make sure people are working hard and stay focused."

Meerschaert has learned that even the best-planned timeline is guaranteed to change over time, but working with her team in advance to create a realistic project timeline is well worth the upfront investment. She believes:

  • A timeline has to be rebalanced periodically
  • Keeping an open communication link with team members gives you the information you need to adjust your timelines
  • Over time, tracking changes to the timeline over the life of the project can help you build metrics that give you smarter estimates for future projects

What has Bar learned from his experience with scheduling conflicts? "First of all, know who you are hiring, and ask frequently about their work and progress," he says. His next suggestions for project managers is to allow overtime whenever possible, to is to finish the project without suffering financial penalties, problems, or client dissatisfaction.

Scheduling issues don't just impact timelines, they typically impact project costs, resources, and quality, among other things, and ultimately risk project success rates overall. It's important to put adequate time and upfront work into the planning phase to ensure all bases are sufficiently covered.

Also see:
10 skills you need to become a great project manager
What to do when projects are always over budget
Scrum agile project management: The smart person's guide

About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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