I do not often get invited to attend the up-front planning meetings for major projects, so I was looking forward to a meeting to discuss a new project in the purchasing department. Brian has been assigned as the project manager on an initiative to better integrate our major suppliers into our purchasing system.

The dilemma
Brian was trying to set expectations for the project when he said, “A project with this complexity is going to take time to complete. Working with external companies will complicate things further.”

“I understand all that,” said Diane, who was the major sponsor for the purchasing department. “But obviously we need to get this going as soon as possible. I know the work will be difficult, but it’s not exactly cutting-edge. Many companies are already doing this.”

“I agree,” Brian said. “But are you also aware of some of the major disasters in this area? There are large benefits, but there are also perils. We just need to be prudent and make sure we do this right.”

Diane asked the million-dollar question, “What kind of timeframe are we talking about?”

Brian was expecting this question “I have been working with a couple of business analysts already, and we think it will be an 18-month project. After all, it will take a couple of months to get the business requirements nailed down. We think the design of the infrastructure and the underlying technical architecture are also going to take a couple months to finalize. It is probably going to be six months before we are ready to start talking to the suppliers.”

Diane had a pained look on her face when she heard the 18-month delivery date. Then she looked at me, “Does this date seem reasonable to you? This project is our number-one priority. We can’t wait that long for the work to be completed.”

“I really do not have enough information to know one way or the other,” I replied diplomatically. “However, Brian and I can meet afterward to see if there are some alternatives.”

Mentor advice
Perhaps I should write a memo to the entire IT staff. The days of the 18-month, monolithic project are over! Even in a big company, there is an urgency to deliver projects in a shorter timeframe. Here are three simple reasons:

  1. The business clients can’t wait that long to receive the benefits of the project.
  2. It is hard to maintain organizational support for projects that span a long timeframe and multiple budget years.
  3. Business conditions change so quickly that long projects run the risk of being out of date before they can be completed.

When I meet with Brian, I am not necessarily going to question his estimates, although I may ask him to revalidate them. Instead, I will work with him on some alternatives to start to deliver value earlier. These include the following.

Can the work be split?
Can the work be divided into smaller projects that can be delivered earlier? For instance, have the overall requirements been scrutinized to separate the wants from the needs?

Brian may be able to deliver the core requirements earlier, with other requirements following later. They also may be able to integrate a set of motivated suppliers in a shorter timeframe, while the remainders are deferred to a follow-up project.

Can the work be advanced?
Can the project be accelerated to take advantage of the customer motivation? For instance, a lot of the time needed to gather business requirements is based on the unavailability of the customers. With such a high priority on the customer’s part, these client-focused milestones may be moved up significantly.

Will more resources help?
Can the project be accelerated with a higher resource commitment? Adding resources may drive up project cost, but the customer may be willing to pay more for a significantly accelerated delivery date.

Should you consider additional expertise?
Are we falling into a “not invented here” syndrome? To avoid this common trap, you should ask this question: Could outside resources with expertise in this field result in an acceleration of the schedule?

These are among the options that deserve consideration. I’m going to tell Brian that I agree with Diane—an 18-month delivery date is too long. Even if the base estimates are reasonably accurate, there are usually many options to look at that will result in the delivery date being moved up significantly, without an increase in workload or project risk.

Do you agree with this advice?

Many project managers prefer to establish a cushion in the estimate to account for unexpected problems. Isn’t this safer to do than to miss a deadline? Post a comment below or send us a letter.