Why You Must Involve the Client in Schedule Management Planning

Planning the Schedule Management“The client needs it in two years.”

“But we can’t possibly deliver what they have asked for in two years.”

“Make it work!”

When I was young in my career, I had developed a decent skill in utilizing Project Management software. As a result, during proposal efforts bid managers would delegate the development of the project schedule to me. Similarly, when our team began a new project, the Project Manager would assign me the task of refining the proposed project schedule for the work ahead. The typical instructions were given to me in just three words: “Make it work.”

Make it work! Make it work!

I may have been young in my career, but I wasn’t stupid. Translation: if the customer requested that the project be completed in two years, the bid manager required a proposed project schedule that showed we would deliver in two years. Little thought was ever given to the fact that perhaps the requested project duration was just a guess by the requesting person, who was undoubtedly inexperienced in project delivery. Often the estimating technique was nothing more than either a wet finger in the air or a boss that said it must be so.

Bid managers have one goal – their commission / bonus / promotion upon winning the bid. Likewise, the developers of proposed project schedules (a.k.a. me!) have one goal – to add enough assumptions to the Schedule Management Plan so that if the schedule could not or would not be attained, it wouldn’t come back on them.

Maybe I should take back my overall premise. Maybe the people aspects of Project Management aren’t missing after all. It seems that in agreeing to such obvious fictitious estimates of duration, each party resorted to that age-old human trait of WIIFT (what’s in it for them), and not what was in it for the overall project objectives:

  • The customer requires “two years.” Fine.
  • The bid manager responds, “Two years? No sweat.”
  • The Project Manager says, “(gulp) Two years?! I guess so. Ok.”
  • The schedule developer says, “$%^#@&,” then proceeds to build out a two-year plan with more overlapping tasks, fine-tuned assumptions and crossed fingers than any wielder of Project Management software should be allowed.

In an earlier post, “This is Why Focusing on People in Project Planning Will Help Projects Succeed,” I proposed that project planning should focus on the people aspects of project management from the very outset of the planning process. I discussed the importance of developing a solid Project Management Plan, employing not just great technical/process skills (remember my premise that overall Project Managers are good at that), but also ensuring that the people side of project management is taken into account from the beginning.

This post now transitions from discussing the high-level Project Management Plan to considering the more granular Schedule Management Plan. According to “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition,” the Schedule Management Plan is a “component of the project management plan that establishes the criteria and the activities for developing, monitoring and controlling the schedule. The schedule management plan … includes appropriate control thresholds.”

What does that really mean? To me it means that at this point in the project we’re getting down to the day-to-day essentials. Mature organizations have well defined processes to:

  • develop the project schedule model,
  • estimate activity durations,
  • provide for contingencies,
  • build in variance thresholds for problem escalation,
  • transition the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) framework to the schedule management plan,
  • establish a performance measurement metric (e.g. percent complete, Earned Value, Schedule Performance Index, etc.), and
  • report progress.

Mature organizations develop professional looking, well thought out, “arts and charts” to prove to their customers beyond the shadow of a doubt that the project schedule and delivery is in capable hands.

Anything missing? Yes, and by now you’ve guessed it too. In my opinion, what is often missing are the people aspects of the schedule management planning process.

Take a look at the bulleted process list that I provided above. These are the technical aspects of a Schedule Management Plan that we as Project Managers do so well – so well, in fact, that in technically “proving” our delivery capability, we often forget to ask some basic questions. In developing the myriad of assumptions that show how the planets must be exactly aligned in order to complete the project in “two years,” we forget to ask if “two years” even makes sense.

What if bid managers / Project Managers introduced the following concepts into their schedule management planning?

  • What if the customer requested a preference for “two years” rather than mandating it; then relied on the expertise of the delivery teams to propose realistic timeframes within certain guidelines? Bidders would be required to provide justification for any proposed variance from the client’s aspiration (either lesser or greater duration).

    For projects requiring bids from external providers, the proposal evaluators could then compare competing solutions to determine the best fit. For internal projects, the customer could discuss their expectations with their internal solution provider, and reach consensus on realistic timelines.

  • What if external providers declined to bid on situations that were felt to be unattainable based on timeframes mandated by the customer? What if internal IT departments did not accept a project that had high probability of failure because of unrealistic timelines or resource constraints?

    Customers would learn to get expert advice before preparing a Request for Proposals or an internal Statement of Work. Fewer projects would be delivered badly or fail outright if there was a matching of customer requests with realistic delivery capabilities.

Why do we become expert at the technical aspects of schedule planning, tracking of Earned Value, and progress reporting if neither the customer nor the delivery team is willing to collaborate around the initial premise in the first place – that is, what will it realistically take in time, resources and cost to deliver what the customer needs? All of the CYA assumptions in the world won’t make the project schedule attainable. In fact, the very presence of assumptions strongly implies that the timeframes are, in all likelihood, not attainable.

No one wants to be the first to give in and admit that the initial estimates, however they were derived, may not be doable. Collaboration regarding what is realistic is a must.

There is never an excuse to hide behind an elegantly derived, technically proficient Schedule Management Plan, with a plethora of assumptions needing to be met for the schedule to be attainable. There are always good reasons to work through the people aspects of questioning initial assumptions, collaborating with respect to what makes sense for the end product, and then and only then, applying the good technical aspects of deriving and executing the Schedule Management Plan.

Now I can “make it work!”

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