The power of arbitrary timelines

What your struggling project might need is an utterly arbitrary timeline.

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Most of us have long followed a standard path to designing and deploying technology. You start with gathering high-level requirements that allow you to size the work that you're trying to perform, ultimately arriving at some variance of person-hours required to complete the task.

You then create a team to execute the job and arrive at a project timeline based on how many people you can throw at the estimated number of person-hours. If the timeline is not acceptable, there's generally a negotiation to reduce the amount of work, and thus the required person-hours, or increase the team, allowing for a larger denominator in your calculation. When the going gets tough, you can throw more bodies at the problem, reduce the amount of work, or allow your estimated end date to slip.

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Where this traditional approach has failed and produced frustration is on efforts that involve a significant degree of uncertainty. It's fairly straightforward to estimate how long it will take to perform a task you've performed dozens of times, and more challenging to create something that no one has ever created before, the latter causing obvious challenges.

Rather than spending weeks applying a false veneer of rigor to an otherwise impossible task, a new approach is warranted: Completely arbitrary and immovable timelines.

Need a new management dashboard? Grab your team and assign a 90-day timeline. Want to test a new application? How does 30 days sound? Rolling out a new product in the market that's never been tried before? Throw 180 days at the challenge. These may seem like impossible and arbitrary timeframes, but that's where it derives its power.

The ultimate scope limiter

With a fixed timeframe and the organizational will to enforce it, you have the ultimate vehicle for controlling and managing scope, especially in a project that's covering unfamiliar territory. Whereas a supposedly "fixed" monetary budget can be somewhat fungible since the cost of adding extra days to the project timeline is rarely accounted for, a fixed calendar date is impossible to fudge unless you're able to create extra days.

With a truly fixed resource driving your project, the team is forced to make what amounts to an economic decision at every turn, against an immovable and indisputable yardstick. Requests that once might have slipped into scope now have a very real risk of causing the team to miss the date, and it's an immediate and simple process for even the most junior member of the team to consider whether the task at hand is worth the cost in time, versus another task.

A fixed date also serves as a loss limiter on new, unfamiliar, or unproven technologies. If one execution path is taking too long, the team must rapidly consider a shorter path, likely one that implements a simpler version of the outcome. If all alternate avenues are exhausted and what's been delivered doesn't meet expectations, it's simple to call the project a success in that it proved the project, team, or objectives were not viable, or that the schedule was too aggressive.

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In all cases, this information can serve as fodder for a decision to allocate another fixed period to the effort, to modify the team or objectives, or some combination thereof. Alternatively, you've limited the investment in an effort that's not currently achievable for your organization and can redeploy the resources elsewhere far faster than if you'd done the usual process of adding "just one more week" until crossing the Rubicon of throwing good money after bad.

Arbitrary timelines also empower each team member, no matter how junior or senior, to make an educated call about how their day-to-day decisions impact the project. While few may know the financial machinations behind every decision they make, most people can judge how they spend their time fairly accurately. If I invest half my day into a low priority item, it's fairly obvious that this creates even more urgency to a higher priority task that I've ignored as the arbitrary due date ticks one step closer.

Testing arbitrary timelines

While this may seem like a challenge to adopt, try an arbitrary timeline in your next relatively low-risk project where there are unclear objectives and outcomes. Good candidates might be setting up a prototype or testing new technology. Take your usual estimate for completing this type of task and drop 10% from the timeline. Hold your team to the date no matter what, especially since this is a low-risk activity, and there should be no critical impact should the team not be able to deliver something useful at the end of the timeline. Rather than stretching the date, which will ruin all future promise of an immovable end date, let the team know that failure is an option.

Give this experiment a try, and see how the team performs and what the outcome looks like. Chances are you'll get a perfectly acceptable outcome or even one that exceeds expectations, with far less management oversight.

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