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

Anyone who’s worked on project teams knows there is plenty that can move a project past its deadline. It’s not uncommon for some of the work to be harder than originally anticipated, or to have turnover on the project that means you have to get new people up to speed. Sometimes you discover that activities were simply underestimated.

Regardless of how it happens, many times you’ll find that you’re trending beyond your committed deadline date. If you discover that happening, your first obligation as the project manager is to try to determine the cause. If you look for remedies without knowing the cause, you’re susceptible to having the situation recur.

What should you do after you know the cause? Should you notify the client and push the project end date out further? Not yet. The first obligation of the project manager and project team is to try to make corrections that will get the project back on track.

If you’re trending over your deadline at the beginning of a long project, you have many options to solve your problem. If you’re toward the end of the project, you may have fewer options. Look at this list of techniques and see which ones can be applied to your situation. Note that this list is not prioritized. Depending on your project situation, some may work in one instance, while others could be applied better in another situation.

First of two parts

This is the first installment of a two-part series and examines five ways you can get your project back on schedule. Next week’s column will discuss five more.

1. Work overtime
Everyone hates it, but one logical place to start is overtime. If people work more hours, they can get more work done in the same amount of calendar time. Overtime may be the best option if you’re close to the end of the project and just need a final push to get everything done on schedule. If you’re toward the end of the project, you also may be able to issue comp time after the project is completed. If you’re still early in the project, there are probably more effective options. This option may also have cost implications if you need to have contract resources work overtime.

2. Reallocate resources
The project manager must first understand what activities are considered most vital to the project’s success, or on the “critical path.” After all, if the project is trending over deadline, by definition it is the critical path that’s late. Once you understand the critical path, see if resources can be moved from other activities to help resolve the issue. This will allow you to get the project back on track by delaying or stretching out some work. Be careful, though: Delaying some work may end up changing the critical path. Always make sure you double-check the critical path each time you change the schedule.

3. Double-check all dependencies
Schedule dependencies represent activities that must be completed in a certain order. For example, if you’re building a house, you cannot start putting up the frame until the foundation is poured and dried. If you’re trending over your deadline, you should revalidate dependencies, since it’s possible that the schedule is being lengthened by invalid dependencies between activities. Invalid dependencies may make it appear that activities must be performed sequentially, when they can really be done in parallel.

Sometimes the scheduling software accidentally adds a dependency. Sometimes the project manager adds the dependency, but on later review decides that the dependency doesn’t really exist. It might make sense to have the team members review the schedule to see if they find dependencies that the project manager thinks are valid, but that they know to be invalid. Check all dependencies to make sure you have all your facts correct before you move into more drastic measures to bring the project back on schedule.

4. Check time-constrained activities
Time-constrained activities are those with durations that don’t change based on the number of resources applied. For example, you may be allocating team members to a five-day class. The class takes five days if one person attends, and it takes five days if 10 people attend. Check all of these time-constrained activities to validate the timeframe. Perhaps you’re making assumptions that could be changed with a different approach. For example, if you allocated three days for a contract to reach a client, perhaps the time could be reduced to one day by paying more for overnight delivery.

5. Swap resources
I mentioned that the first thing to do when you’re trending over your schedule is to determine the cause. One cause you may find is that you have one or more resources that aren’t as productive as you planned. Perhaps it’s because they don’t have the right skills. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t as productive in this particular area as they are in other areas. Regardless, there may be opportunities to replace resources. In some instances, you can simply swap people who are working on different activities within your project. Other times, you may release a team member and bring in another person.

Remember that the activities on the critical path are key. You may have options to assign a more productive resource to those activities, while reassigning a less productive resource to non-critical path activities. If the activities off the critical path are delayed, you may still be okay in terms of meeting your overall project deadline.

Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. Recently, he was Director of Internal Development at Geac, Inc., a major ERP software company. He’s worked for Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep and an application support methodology called SupportStep.