Leadership

Overcome 'baseline bashfulness' with these techniques

Some IT project managers are still reluctant to baseline and commit to a schedule. Here's why, and some ideas about how to get past these concerns.

If you're going to effectively monitor, control, and manage a project schedule, you need to measure progress against an original set of estimates. A project baseline is the official record of the original cost and time estimates based on a project's scope.

In perfect PMBOK theory, it makes sense to record and adhere to a project baseline; in practice, some project managers are reluctant to commit to a baseline. I've seen project schedules where the baseline is finally committed when there are only two or three weeks until the deadline. Here are four reasons why some project managers exhibit what I call "baseline bashfulness" and suggestions on how to overcome these issues.

Reason 1: Project scope is not completely defined

In a perfect world, IT projects would be similar to construction projects, where the design and architecture are well defined and explicitly detailed on a blueprint. Software projects need to be more adaptive to changing business processes and designs as requirements are further understood. The reality is the project team can waste months defining every detail only to have the business process change.

How to overcome it: You should commit to what you know and apply the rolling planning concept. For example, baseline tasks one to two months out and set the baseline for the new tasks once you understand the scope further. Management and stakeholders always want a commitment date, but with IT projects, we need to establish target dates with the expectation for adjustment. As your project approaches those target dates, the task to reach the next target needs to be baselined, otherwise you won't know how far off you are on the plan.

Reason 2: Unknown or uncontrollable external factors

Another frequent concern is unknown dates for work sourced to other project teams. These teams may be external to the project or the company but still can affect the IT project team's schedule. The project detail for each vendor or external team may not be fully defined or controllable; you might even have to work with external teams that refuse to publish a project schedule and will only communicate a handful of dates.

How to overcome it: The project team should be able to make estimates for the work even if every detail from the external team is not known. By baselining an estimated milestone, the team can document the assumption that the date will move once the unknown scope is clarified. The project team still needs a target date they can plan for rather than try to manage the unknown.

Reason 3: Fear of top-down management

Project managers might be reluctant to baseline if they're fearful of how executives will respond to missing dates. The amount of attention and help received for a missed milestone will vary based on the organization's project management culture. Delivery-focused organizations find ways to help without rebuke, while less successful organizations penalize the project manager for not having an accurate crystal ball.

How to overcome it: There isn't an easy solution that will make the project manager feel better. The best bet is to communicate a distinct action plan early in the project, which will help demonstrate the project manager is in control despite the slipped date.

Reason 4: Lack of hands-on experience

I can get PMP certified by taking a weekend prep course, but I'll learn how to pass the exam rather than the fundamental project management principles. Newly minted PMPs and even experienced project managers run the risk of failing to "walk the talk," even as they talk about the importance of managing to dates with a performance baseline. I've worked with project managers responsible for large scale projects who asked me, "What's a baseline?"

How to overcome it: Organizations need to couple project management theory with good old-fashioned practice. By partnering experienced project managers with new project managers and sharing templates, filters, views, and realistic techniques, everyone will benefit.

Baseline flexibility

If the concept of a project baseline still seems daunting, remember you can always save a different version of your plan or record a different set of baseline dates. In Microsoft Project, you can create 11 versions of the project baseline within the same file. By recording your original baseline date with subsequent re-baselines, you don't lose track of the original estimates and can plan better in the future using the original set of estimates and actual data. Microsoft Project also supports deadlines that can be used as a "soft" baseline for key tasks. You can create and validate deadlines to manage the schedule if you're uncomfortable with baseline dates and variance analysis.

About

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of How To Use Microsoft Project and Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice visit http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com.

7 comments
alns
alns

I agree with Amajar and others, but what I like with the PMP is it promotes the developing channels and a career transition for many people. To me the PMBOK framework is a great value since I have made use of deliverable methodologies which were created based on it. As we all know we all start somewhere before gaining the required experience and then become effective in those roles. Since these days the true concept of apprenticeship is considered anymore due economic viability.

lunchbeast
lunchbeast

Regarding "... while less successful organizations penalize the project manager for not having an accurate crystal ball..", seriously, is there any other kind?

bvillalobosc
bvillalobosc

"I can get PMP certified by taking a weekend prep course" Well, first, actually you cannot get PMP certified unless you have a certain amount of "hands-on" experience. Second, required training is a bit longer than a weekend, unless you stay awake all of it. Third, you possibly would never get it. PMP has some ethical standards very far from you, according to the messages you are able to blog. Have a nice weekend.

FlyingCircus
FlyingCircus

Setting a baseline, to communicate expectations based on what is known, is expected in most organizations, punishing or not. Date and cost ranges to deliver a list of functionality. From that point it's the responsibility of the PM to manage, and communicate changes or new learnings and their impacts for management approval or decision. Agile at its root is constant, defined, communicated change management, but reasonable waterfall change management practices can help. If the PM gets assassinated for doing their job then time to beat feet!

amakar
amakar

Agile organizations have a rolling planning view vs. waterfall view to dates and milestones

babushan
babushan

Even i do agree with Andrew that a PMP ceritifed guy knows only about the PMBOK theories and the ethical standards. In reality only experience matters and the theory you learnt from PMBOK will not be useful in the real life situation.

amakar
amakar

The main point is experience should be your guide and PMs shouldn't be afraid to put a stake in the ground. Please don't mistake my comment about PMP Prep courses being able to prepare someone for a certification test in a 3 day weekend with assuming only PMPs know theory and not actual execution. I studied 3+ months for my PMP in addition to the experience requirements. The issue is certification isn't enough to handle these issues.

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