Scheduling practices can be a major source of project risk. Here are three of the most common scheduling risks that crop up when teams are putting together project plans. And, as we like to give you actionable advice, we’ve also suggested some solutions for how you can prevent these challenges from putting your projects at risk.
1. “We need to break the work down”
You might think that breaking the project into smaller chunks is a way to manage risk, so why are we flagging this approach as a potential problem? Well, iterative development is good in principle, but in practice it can be a big headache if it’s not done properly.
The UK’s National Audit Office, which reviews major programs, produced a report into lessons learned from the UK government’s investment and implementation of major projects. The take home messages included that you need to be really careful when opting for incremental delivery.
“For a staged approach to work,” the report concludes, “[organizations] must plan each stage in advance, considering what they hope to learn from each stage and what risks they are seeking to mitigate.”
The report’s authors go on to say that simply choosing a project delivery approach that includes a staged delivery will not by itself mitigate against any problems. It’s the reflection, learning and subsequent improvements that bring about a successful implementation.
The report cites the example of introducing a welfare benefit aimed at helping adults with the extra costs of living with a long-term health condition or disability. The project team did not allow enough time between stages to review the previous stage and ensure the benefits were being delivered incrementally. That resulted in backlogs and not enough time to fix the problems before the next wave of deliverables went live.
How to avoid this: A staged implementation is a good way of managing project risk. If you are taking this approach, make sure you plan enough time between project phases to properly assess what worked and what didn’t so you can use those lessons to improve the delivery of the next stage. If you decompose the work and run lots of smaller initiatives, you need to have confidence that they will all fit back together again in the pattern you expect.
2. “We just need to get going”
You’ve probably heard this yourself, if you’ve worked in projects for any length of time. Sometimes stakeholders are so keen to get the project into the delivery stage that they won’t entertain spending much (or any) time on project planning.
Here are some clues that this might be a risk for your project:
- Stakeholders say that details can be worked out as you go along
- They don’t want to think about the long-term picture or later deliverables and are only focused on what needs to happen next
- They aren’t interested in providing input to or reviewing documentation
- You don’t have a clear view of what you are supposed to be delivering
- There’s a lot of pressure from executives to hit very short-term dates that they can’t provide a justification for beyond the desire to quickly “see some progress”.
Projects run more smoothly if there is time invested in planning the work and ensuring everyone is on the same page before too much doing is done. That’s been proven time and time again, and you can probably think of examples from your own organization where a lack of planning has caused issues later down the line.
How to avoid this: Resisting pressure from executives is difficult, but they might be prepared to adopt rolling wave planning, where the schedule is progressively elaborated as more detail is known. That gives you the comfort of doing some long-range, high-level planning and doesn’t take up more time than is necessary to get going. Get everyone together for a risk management workshop and bring up the challenge of starting without a plan as a risk.
3. “We can’t allow any changes”
If you are working on a fixed price contract, you might have heard people say that they don’t want to allow changes to scope. That’s understandable, as changes have the potential to increase project cost, and that eats into your margin if you are working for an agreed price.
However, it’s unreasonable in most cases to think that nothing will change throughout the project. Even if the client puts forward no changes, you may need to flex the way you work internally.
This suggestion might be coming too late for your current project, but for future work, it’s important to consider that scope is an evolving thing in most cases.
Look at how your agreement with the client is structured and make sure there is a process for requesting (and paying for) additional work. There should be a formal change control process that the client or internal team can use to propose changes. Then they can be analyzed and discussed as a team, so that the full impact is understood. You may not choose to go ahead with the change, but as long as that’s a decision reached after consideration and debate you can justify taking that approach. The risk here is that the team blocks any changes for fear of what the schedule impact will be and you end up delivering something that is not fit for purpose and doesn’t meet the client’s needs.
How to avoid this: Make space in your schedule for changes to scope by maintaining an open mindset. Budget time and money to allow for changes as and when they happen.
As you can imagine, there are many more scheduling risks that you could face on a project, but hopefully these three are a good starting point for a discussion with your team about the kinds of problems that might come up during your work.
Keep talking about how the schedule is developing and the challenges that could arise as a result of the approaches you are taking. If you recognize your team’s lack of skill in creating meaningful plans, get expert scheduling support to build a timeline that works. An open dialogue and a willingness to look for things that could go wrong are the first steps towards risk-proofing your schedule to improve your chances of a successful project.