Leadership optimize

Nontraditional cures for keeping a project on schedule and on budget

Telling a client that a project is behind schedule and running over budget is unpleasant and possibly humiliating. Two nontraditional methods for involving in-house personnel from the project's inception can help keep things on track.

 When your client's in-house personnel fail to meet your benchmarks for scheduling and costs, everyone points a finger at you. After all, you're the one who proposed the project, so it's your fault.

The numerous methods for keeping a project on track and on budget often don't work because clients abdicate their authority to the expert (you). It's an unrealistic expectation because you're at the mercy of in-house attitudes and politics, and therein lies the problem: You have to make the client's management and in-house personnel part of the process. By sharing project ownership, you can hold them just as responsible to meeting schedules and budgets as they hold you. Sharing project ownership is a bit unconventional for some IT consultants, but it's worth trying.

Rely on a spec team

Traditionally, IT consultants draw up a set of specifications, which the client signs off on. Regardless of how thorough you are, you will make mistakes. Yet, this has been the traditional method for scoping most projects, and it's why schedules collapse. While you're reevaluating, rewriting, and waiting for approval, the project falls behind.

Instead of taking total responsibility for scoping the project, assemble a specification team that consists of you, your technicians, and the client's managers and users. The entire team should work out the specifications together. The in-house personnel will prove invaluable in helping you avoid the pitfalls and problems they've already incurred. Also, because it's their project too, it's more likely they'll proactively seek solutions to meet the timetable and budget rather than be complacent.

A team comes with a serious inherent problem: There's no incentive for the in-house employees to work with you. In fact, taking part in the process may even put them behind in their own work. You'll need management's encouragement, and it can be tough to persuade management to free up the necessary personnel. If the project's important enough (and the budget's high enough), you can probably convince the company's IT manager or CIO that project scrutiny up-front will avoid costly delays later.

Schedule from the top down

When scheduling projects, you traditionally consult with in-house personnel to determine how much time they need to complete their project-related tasks. You know that people pad those estimates, but you can't really do anything about it. To make matters worse, if you're collaborating with several levels of in-house personnel, that padding seems to grow exponentially.

You need everyone's input, but when it comes to scheduling in-house tasks, consult both the individuals and management. Managers see a bigger picture; this doesn't negate the individual's position in that picture, but management knows the critical nature of the project. In fact, management can decide to allocate more resources (time, money, and temporary help) if necessary.

Nontraditional might be just what you need

Some IT consultants will balk at both of these tactics; they see in-house personnel as intrusive and uninformed, and they don't want clients deciding scheduling benchmarks.

If your projects stay on schedule and on budget, keep on the same path because you're doing something right. On the other hand, if your projects aren't meeting schedules and budgets, it might be time to try something new.

Do you consider these methods nontraditional or well-known insider tricks of the trade? Do you have any nontraditional project management tips to share with the community? Post your thoughts and tips in the discussion.

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About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

13 comments
yeoman
yeoman

?Traditionally, it consultants draw up a set of specifications?. Not in isolation, which would be a fatal mistake. We must identify and involve our stakeholders. Senior management can give you their vision, even tell you how things work, but most of the vital details will be missing, and those details often make the vital difference between success and failure. When I was in production support one system that failed every day was a system where one important stakeholder had been missed. The other major thing to avoid is the IT vs business divide. Business involvement is not optional. It is vital.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

As soon as you know your estimate of how long something will take is going to be used as an elapsed time from when you gave the figure, padding is self defense, never mind the estimate was anything from a total to educated guess in the first place. If you aren't doing it in partnership, and using the throw it over the partition method, you lose all information and control of your scheduling. If your performance is being judged on how well you met the schedule, which was a guess, a long time ago, sometimes by other people, in different circumstances, well look forward to arguing that you didn't under-perform. A lot of finger pointing, cya and not me guv. However you do have that plan of how you are going to fail to fall back on or beat some poor git over the head with. No project plan survives contact with implementation, to paraphrase a military maxim.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The problem is, even with padding they usually underestimate. I definitely believe in getting people at my client's offices to take part of the responsibility for any big project -- otherwise you can get hung out to dry.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've had that experience of someone asking for an estimate, then sitting on it for a year or two. When they finally come back and say "yes" I need half the time quoted just to refamiliarize myself with the problem domain.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

is when you give them an estimate of five days, they whinge and moan, try to knock your contingency out. Go off to think about it, come back fours days later and say OK then. Then you look at the plan and it's due tomorrow..... WTF? Or this was estimated by Jim at ten days, Jim being the expert who you just replaced. WTF WTF? I mean guys , at least try, ffs.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but in real terms, not wrong at all. Very painful learning experience that, if I have to do it again, I'm charging more.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

techies. You ever been hired to take the blame for an in place screw up. I have, not funny at all that one. Can you do some improvments to this software. Course I'd signed before I got see what a total POS it was. Take a wild stab in the dark at who got the finger pointed at them. Mind you I got paid.. :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

He/she who hires the consultant is the one who drives his/her priorities. The overlap between those goals and the success of the company or project may not be even close to 100%. Some tangential goals that may take precedence include: - cover my a$$ - make me look good - use up my budget, so it doesn't get cut - prove my opponents wrong - give me an excuse to fire so-and-so etc.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The only good consultant I've ever worked with was me, them in house f'kers though they were a nightmare. ROFLMAO. Issues on both sides mate, thing is consultants are brought in to do a job for management, not us wageslaves, customers or even the company....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am consultants that give the rest of us a bad name. Unfortunately, there are far too many of those.

ssharkins
ssharkins

First of all, only some consultants see in-house personnel as intrusive and uninformed, and that attitude doesn't serve them well. That's why I mentioned it. I'm certainly not advocating it! I'm sorry you've had a bad experience.

sfarren
sfarren

Excuse me? I am in-house and I find that statement very offensive. So a consultant comes in and says I can beat your in-house estimate by, let's say, 10 Days. The first thing they do after that is drag us "in-house" guys into overly long meetings. Then badger us the rest of the time with questions. Then they leave and guess how has to support the mess? That's right "in-house". Think about that, your high-and-mighty "Consultanship"!