By Bruce Beer, PMP

Note: This is Part 1 of the Keeping Your Projects on Track series. Part 2 is Keeping Your Project Within Budget.

You want to be seen as the latest wunderkind of your Company and to bring your new critical project in on time, leading to much applause, plaudits, admiration, and maybe even a pay rise! You did a great Microsoft Project schedule, and even highlighted the Critical Path, so now you are in business and can almost guarantee success – yes?

After a month, you have been focusing on your Critical Path and making sure these activities receive your full attention – this must surely ensure you come in on time, yes?

The answer to both the above questions is no! There are certain fundamentals that you as a project manager need to understand before you can “Manage” your project to a successful conclusion.

You must know the priorities of your triple constraints – Time, Cost, and Scope.

Is this a Time driven project where you may have a drop dead date for project completion? For example the lease on your current hardware runs out on an immovable date and you need to have a new system using the latest software running on your new hardware by that date.

Is it a Cost driven project where there is a fixed budget which just cannot be exceeded on pain of death or job termination? or

Is it a Scope driven project where the scope defined in the scope statement is absolutely critical? For example, migrating an old system onto a new platform where total pre-existing functionality needs to be retained.

Not only must you know your highest priority but you should also know the order of the remaining two  – you need to know your highest priority, lowest priority, and the one in the middle before you start detailed planning.

Why should you know what the triple constraint priorities are? Well, for example, if your project is time critical but you treat it as cost critical, you might do an excellent job and end up coming in on cost but after the due date – which would not be considered successful. Similarly, you might bring a cost driven project in on time but overshoot your budget – again not advisable for long term career continuation.

You must keep your project schedule updated.

Your critical path can get out of date and be potentially useless very quickly. The Critical Path might shift at any time leaving you highly focused on the old, out of date, and incorrect path – this is unlikely to lead to success!!

Keep activity lengths short for best monitoring and control.

On normal projects it is recommended that you keep activities to 10 days or less (if an activity is greater than 10 days, break it down into sub-activities so each one is less than 10 days) and aim to update your schedule with “real life actuals” on a weekly basis.

For time driven projects, some other areas you as PM should consider to ensure maximum chance of bringing your project in on time include:

  • Time estimates should be as realistic as possible and provided from the best source. Do not be optimistic – rarely is optimism rewarded.
  • Carefully evaluate and include time risk, especially on Critical Path activities.
  • Never plan on working overtime. This is a contingency you might need to use during execution.
  • Do not accept unrealistic requirements from your managers or customers. Better to suggest realistic alternatives that can be achieved rather than accept them and fail.

Note that as always, the root of project success is in the planning. If we follow the above suggestions to create a realistic schedule, we know the initial and most recent critical paths, and we recognize and know what to do if the project starts to slip, we stand a chance of bringing our time driven project to a successful conclusion.

Once started, if your project starts slipping and you have detected this ugly fact at the earliest opportunity, for a time driven project where scope is the middle priority and cost is the lowest, a sequence of remedies you might consider, in order could include:

a)       Look for someone already on your project with the appropriate skill set who is available, is not on the critical path, and has sufficient slack, to help out with a critical path activity. Temporary addition of this resource to the critical path should bring your project back on track retaining full scope with minimal additional cost.

b)       If there is no one suitable available in your project, you could look outside your project but within your company to keep additional cost as low as possible.

c)       If this is not possible, look outside the company for short term consulting – this may initially require some time in getting the resource up to speed but eventually they will be fully productive and haul back the end date to where it should be, but at additional cost. (Note scope is a higher priority than cost.)

If the second priority had been cost rather than scope, then your first point of attack might be to remove some scope to bring the project back on track. There may be some “bells and whistles” that could be eliminated without affecting the overall effectiveness of the project. This should not involve extra cost.

To enable you to do the above, it would be a good idea to know the full skill set of every project team member, even if they are not using all their skills on this project. It would also be a good idea to be familiar with other projects going on in your company and network frequently with the other PMs so that short term transfer of resources between projects is made relatively easy and will improve the overall success of projects in your company. It does, however, mean that other PMs in your company should be using critical path analysis on their own projects.

There is a great deal more to managing a time critical project than outlined above, but this should act as a good starting point!

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