Project management is a key vehicle for organisations to turn strategy into action. However, despite the increasing investment in project management capability, many projects still fail to meet their objectives. In this fourth article in a series, we explore how end-date driven schedules can be hugely wasteful on precious resources, one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, initially coined by Jeffrey Pinto in his paper ‘Lies, damned lies, and project plans’: Recurring human errors that can ruin the project planning process’.
At Skarbek, we often parachute into situations where a client’s key projects are in crisis and the blame game has begun. Has there been malpractice in project management, or is it environmental factors that have driven failure – lack of resources, commitment, engagement, or sponsorship? To those project managers who readily point out that their projects were well run, but these external factors conspired against success, Pinto’s seven deadly sins provide some insights that can make the profession question whether they really got it right from the beginning.
The fourth sin Pinto calls out is the imposition of end-date driven schedules. Perhaps driven by trade launch windows, or contractual penalties, these can play havoc with effective project management methodology and send teams into the ‘death marches’ we discussed in our last article. Often the top-down date is prescribed without consideration of resourcing, and such not ‘putting one’s money where one’s mouth is’ can be demotivating from the start. It assumes that the project is actually feasible. It sets up an instant conflict between proper planning, risk management and scoping and the imperative that key steps and quality must be cut to somehow make the deadline. In short, Pinto says this approach too often does not work.
Here we depart from Pinto’s critique, as we feel the need draw more on our empathy with the situation our clients face and the pressures in their business. Project managers in multinationals are not just administrators – they have as much responsibility as a marketing director, finance VP, or supply chain planner, to think about how their purpose fits into the business context and act as if they own the part of the business they can see.
Project management in this context is not done in another building with new briefs arriving through the mail. The start of a project is a baton pass, not a standing start and project managers need to read and manage the business context that spawns their portfolio of projects. This proactivity and engagement can work best in our experience when taking the following forms:
- Develop the counterintuitive habit of seeking projects out even when busy – it will pay back in death marches avoided – otherwise they will develop a life of their own before you are presented with the project and the end date!
- We say time is the one non-renewable resource, so know when to invite submissions according to the wider annual calendar of business and market activities.
- Set up your project harvesting process, forums and a strong regular drumbeat that pre-conditions people to the lead times and windows for certain activities that they may be considering initiating.
- Be ready to fight for resources when the end-driven schedule does slip through, by putting the consequent quality and probability of success compromises on the table.
In effect, this shows how portfolio management skills are a key adjunct to the project management work. When project management gets too distant from portfolio management, we often see serious pain arising. We once interviewed a retired project and portfolio director who had left a highly effective legacy of delivery capability and who shared one secret of success. She said she always kept her portfolio managers ‘real’ by having them all handle one actual project themselves alongside the portfolio work, and rarely suffered from being caught out by unanticipated end-driven scheduling!
Finally, it is worth highlighting that a judicious use of end-driven schedules can sometimes be a useful tool for getting results in certain situations. Asking the project team to score their belief on two axes that the schedule is both realistic and achievable takes a couple of minutes and can be a regular check that the right balance is in place to make the deadline motivating. To get a team to really grapple with an end-driven schedule, the military ‘red-teaming’ technique, where a mission is tested against disconfirming hypotheses, has worked well in our experience.
In future articles, we will example the remaining deadly project sins before drawing together our insights as a whole of what may be dooming your projects from the offset and the overall strategies that we have found can be employed to avoid this fate.