Sunday, May 29, 2011

Behind Schedule...

OK, it happens to the best of us... we fall behind schedule. What's next?

If you're early in the project, take a deep breath, and pat yourself on the back. It's only through the use of good project management that you've realized early that you're behind schedule. If your "OH NO" factor is late in the project, and you're way behind... shame on you. Project management strategies don't work unless you pay attention to your projects... the timeline... costs... risks... and the critical path.

What are your options?

  1. Well, you could request an extension. However, some projects cannot slide. You may be managing a project on the critical path of a larger over-arching project, or one where delays cannot be tolerated. This may be because the penalties for a late delivery are so expensive that it's not a practical option to delay, or there is an immovable deadline for any variety of other reasons.
  2. Ask for... or allocate more resources... these can come from other projects... other budgets, or consultants that can add a resource boost to your project. It may be that a delay in the project would be so costly that hiring extra resources would be more cost effective in the long run.
  3. Refine your scope... negotiate with your customers to trim out any areas that aren't absolutely critical for this phase of the project, and move them to other phases, where possible.
I cannot stress enough the importance of solid customer service. Communications is a critical component of a successful relationship with your customer. My recommendation is to over-communicate... then communicate more. Customers will always assume that things are going well. If they are, they will welcome the reassurance... so that's great. If they are not, they want notified as early as possible, so they can communicate any potential delay to their leadership... and/or work to identify alternatives to meet the existing deadline.

Nobody will be excited when you inform them that their project is behind schedule. How do you break the news? As your parents always said... honesty is the best policy. Keep notes on your project. If there are reasons for a delay, such as scope creep... document them and explain the impact. If the reason for your delay is because you lost a key resources or skill, inform your customer immediately of any perceived impact.

Approach each project as a collaborative effort. As you identify new risks, work with your customers to address anything that could potentially cause a delay along your critical path. Ask for their feedback on how best to help mitigate the risk. Waiting until the project is due, and then saying I'm sorry we couldn't make it... and blaming everything... and everyone under the sun is irresponsible and unprofessional. It is your job to make the project happen within the allotted schedule. If you've misjudged the estimate, permitted scope creep, or resources aren't working out... be honest and accept the responsibility for any delays. After all, it is your job to manage the project. Your customer is relying on you to be professional, courteous, and to deliver results. Negotiate with your customers to slide scope creep to a later phase or rearrange scope, schedules, and priorities when possible. Otherwise negotiate for additional resources if priorities cannot be changed, and the deadline is immovable.

As a professional project manager, every setback is a learning opportunity. It is important to do a postmortem on each project. Gather your team, and ask what worked... and what didn't add value. Remember, it's your job to add value. If you require your resources to spend 2 hours a week recording details about their time spent on a project, that's 5% of their time they are not contributing to the completion of the project. The more time you request for tracking, the less time they will have to spend on the project. Find and maintain the appropriate balance for your projects to allow you to monitor project health and progress, with the least impact possible.

Ask your customers to participate in the project post-mortem. If they have suggestions, you can learn from these... and become a better project manager. If they are impressed, it's never a bad thing to receive a complement or praise for your team. Make sure to give the credit appropriately to the project team, and publicly recognize their contributions and accomplishments. You succeed, or fail as a team, and should be recognized as such. If the customer was disappointed, it's often very productive to let them vent. Your goal is to develop a long term relationship. You'll learn which customers are most demanding, and which are easier to please, and then plan appropriately. Regardless, deliver results.

Best wishes for project success!