By Alan Zucker
February 8, 2023
Let’s be honest, most project schedules disappoint. They are unrealistic, complicated, and do not help guide execution. For decades, Gantt charts, network diagrams, and the critical path method have been the standard practices. Even with these powerful tools, only about half of all projects are completed on time, as reported in the PMI Pulse of the Profession®.
Multiple factors contribute to these outcomes. Underlying assumptions are unrealistic. Structuring a “good” project schedule is difficult, and many are unsound. The tools are complicated and require more effort than most people are willing to invest.
To improve, we need to understand the tools and their limitations, set clear expectations, and improve our practices by planning at the “right” level of detail and removing complexity.
Understand the Tools
Most scheduling tools are built on the foundation of network diagramming and the critical path method. Network diagrams depict the sequential execution of project tasks. The sequence of activities with the longest duration is the critical path. Changes to task duration or the timing of these critical activities will impact the project schedule.
These tools were developed in the 1950s to manage the U.S. Navy’s Polaris submarine program. They were designed as industrial-strength tools for large, complex projects.
Traditional project scheduling follows a logical, linear set of operations:
- Define the project scope. All required deliverables must be documented.
- Decompose the scope into work packages. Work packages are small deliverables that are assignable and estimable.
- Identify the activities or tasks required to create each work package.
- Sequence the activities in a logical order, documenting the interdependencies and timing.
- Estimate the time needed to execute each task.
- Assemble the tasks into a project schedule respecting the dependencies, resource availability, and other project constraints.
Critical assumptions undergird this process:
- The project scope is well-defined and stable.
- Changes to scope will be limited as this will impact the plan.
- All activities are identified and correctly sequenced with a predecessor and successor task.
- It is possible to estimate each task’s resource needs and effort. Even when we can estimate the ideal time, adjusting for delays, interruptions, and competing priorities adds uncertainty and complicates the process.
- Finally, reality will resemble the plan–this is a critical and unrealistic assumption.
Construction projects should fulfill these assumptions. They have detailed plans and specifications. But there are always design changes or unexpected events. Seattle’s massive project to bury State Route 99 suffered a 2-year delay after Bertha (the tunneling machine) hit an 8-inch steel pipe. Knowledge work and software projects drastically challenge traditional practices and assumptions.
Traditional tools can create a sound planning foundation. And incorporating other widely accepted practices will improve outcomes. The plans will be more realistic, helpful and lead to happy customers and project teams.
Setting expectations is essential. Plans create the project roadmap. The level of detail and accuracy depends on multiple factors, including project duration, known and unforeseeable risks, and the effort expended on planning.
The Depression-era self-help guru, Napoleon Hill, is credited with coining, “Plan the work and work the plan.” This may be motivational, but it translates poorly to project management. I knew an executive who was fond of the phrase, and to no one’s surprise was a poor project leader.
General Eisenhower stated, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The process of planning forces us to comprehend the project’s context. The great Prussian military strategist von Moltke noted, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” The same is true for projects.
The master scheduler for a data warehousing project was concerned that we would finish the 3-year effort a few weeks behind schedule. He failed to anticipate that a corporate restructuring would end the project prematurely.
Acknowledging these challenges allows us to calibrate expectations. Documenting and reviewing constraints, assumptions, and risks creates transparency. We should also emphasize that the plan represents the best knowledge, intentions, and predictions of future events.
Plan at the Right Level
Like our home repairs, using the right project management tools makes a difference. Tools influence and constrain what we do. When selecting practices and tools, planning horizon, project type, organizational context, and process maturity are key factors.
Rolling wave planning promotes cascading levels of detail across the project’s time horizon. Current and near-term work is planned and monitored at a lower level of detail than work in the distant future. A colleague who managed the 10-year effort to update the technology at embassies across the globe had more detailed plans for the upcoming transitions than the later ones.
Rolling wave planning lends itself to using a roadmap to envision the project journey. The roadmap depicts major activities or deliverables by time period. Time can be telescoped where months or quarters are used for near-term efforts and years for the future. Roadmaps quickly convey relevant information at the appropriate level of detail.
Near-term tasks and deliverables can be planned and managed using various tools. Traditional tools allow us to model task interdependencies and estimate the critical path. Lean-Agile teams often use Kanban to prioritize, organize, and manage work. Kanban boards are visual, easy to use, and create more transparency than the traditional tools.
Complexity adds risk. Schedules with many team and task interdependencies are hard to plan and manage. Picture a ballet versus a dance party. The planning, choreography, and practice required for a successful ballet is mind-boggling.
Complex projects with unknowns and unpredictable interactions are inherently risky. Upfront planning efforts are unlikely to succeed. However, iterative planning practices reduce risk by incorporating feedback loops that allow for learning and adapting.
Organizational silos, operating agreements, and segregation of duties inhibit collaboration and add complexity. Many frustrating projects come to mind. Operating structures constrained cross-team coordination and communication, and adversely impacted project quality, schedule, and cost.
Project managers can inadvertently introduce complexity and delays when constructing the schedule. Schedules are representations or models of expected interactions and behaviors—they are not immutable laws of nature. On one project, we reduced the planned duration by 25% simply by adjusting task dependencies. Durations were left unchanged, and the project finished earlier than expected.
To improve our schedules’ quality, simplify the process. Eliminate complexity imposed externally by our organization or introduced by our teams. Plan incrementally. Get feedback early, and confirm progress based on working systems.
©2022, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC
About the Author
Alan Zucker has over 25 years of experience leading projects and project management organizations in Fortune 100 companies. In 2016, Alan founded Project Management Essentials to share his passion for and experience in project management, leadership, and Agile.
Alan is a frequent keynote speaker and thought leader. He authors monthly articles, is regularly quoted in the industry press, and is a podcast guest. He is an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University and the University of Georgia; and is a senior instructor with several national, professional development organizations.
Alan has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland and a master’s and a certificate in IT Project Management from the George Washington University. He is a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Agile Professional (PMI-ACP) through the Project Management Institute. He also holds multiple Agile certifications from Disciplined Agile, Scrum Alliance, and Scaled Agile.
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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.