Manage projects by end dates

Tracking the hours team members spend on project activity is one way for a project manager to estimate completion. But as Project Mentor Tom Mochal points out, it's more efficient to manage a project by its actual completion date to keep things on track.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

Sam is getting close to completing his project—installing a new release of the company’s financial software. Unfortunately, he’s running into a very common problem: His team is not meeting its target dates.

The dilemma
“I’m not sure what to do,” Sam said. “I’ve got good people on the team, but we’re falling behind schedule. Some team members haven’t been able to allocate the time required to complete the work by the due date. For example, the IT people that are installing the new release are still having to support the current one, so if a problem arises, they have to stop their project work to fix it.”

I asked how he was managing the project plan.

“Every Wednesday and Friday, I ask the team to update me on the number of hours they’ve spent on each assigned activity and what percentage of the work is completed. But the work is always only 90 percent completed. When I talk to the team about the project falling behind, they tell me that they’re sorry, but they haven’t been able to spend the time that the activity requires.”

“What’s the purpose of asking people how many hours they worked on each activity?” I asked.

Sam looked a little puzzled. “I know what the estimated effort hours are for each activity,” he said. “Having the team report actual hours helps me to validate how close the original estimates were.”

“So even though you’re getting that information, you’re still falling behind,” I noted. “What information would be the most helpful to know for future project planning?”

Sam thought for a minute. “I really want them to tell me when the work will be done.”

Mentor advice
Estimating effort hours is important because it helps to determine completion dates. But once the activities are assigned, my bias usually becomes getting the work done on time. This is an important distinction that needs to be validated with your sponsor and your company. This does not mean actual effort hours are not important. They are—especially if the project or certain contract resources are being charged on an hourly basis. Tracking and managing hours is usually important on a government project, for instance, or in a contractual relationship.

However, if yours is a typical internal project utilizing internal resources, my experience is that it’s easier and more reliable to manage the project based on the assigned end dates. Then you just need to ask and validate one question: When will the work be completed?

Sam’s project showcases a common scenario—the work is for an internal business client, and the team members are all part of the internal IT staff. A project manager may have estimated that a certain activity would take 40 effort hours and two weeks to complete. Of the two estimates, the more important aspect of success is whether the work was completed within the two weeks. To a certain extent, it really doesn’t matter if the work took 30 hours or 60—as long as it is completed within two weeks. If the work is not complete, the project manager’s question becomes “When will the work be finished?” If the answer is later than your promised completion date, you can then focus on what will be needed to get the work completed by that date. Managing effort hours and dollars are two indicators of success, but managing by completion date is the best way to keep an internal project focused on deadlines.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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