Project management & transformation: How to avoid time traps to keep your project on schedule

Projekt Zeitplan project timeline

In this article, we explore the main reasons why projects run late, and describe the 6 fundamentals you can rely on to ensure your project is on time. 

The European economy is undergoing a major transformation: for example, with the promotion of sustainability, digital processes and automation. Projects are therefore ubiquitous in business – and project management has become a key discipline.

Getting the timing right can be critical: Will the end result be outstanding, will it be just “okay“ – or even a desaster?

The stakes can be tremendously high. E.g., if a product launch is delayed, the damage can quickly run into the millions. In addition, customer and partner confidence suffers when projects drag on excruciatingly long. The same applies to internal projects, such as strategic IT projects that affect key processes.

Delivering on time saves you from excuses, unnecessary stress, and from fighting for extra budget.

A general problem is that more and more projects are running in parallel and are interrelated. Scheduling becomes a balancing act.

If one project is delayed, the next one can be thrown off course. In the worst case, the entire project portfolio can be thrown off track.

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Why do projects run late? The 3 problems behind the problem

Every project is different. When projects are delayed, there are always multiple factors. But there are patterns: over-optimism, unforeseen events, and blind spots in project management

1. Over-optimism due to a lack of information

How large is the actual project scope, what resources can you devote to it, and in what timeframe? If you over- or underestimate one factor, you can easily run out of schedule. The “magic triangle” of scope, budget, and time comes into play. For example, is the scope larger than expected, but your team is at capacity and you don’t have a budget for external support? Then you simply need more time. Sounds trivial, but in practice it is often not.

In resource management, you work with models of the near future. The more information you have, the better. Especially at the beginning of a project, there is often a lack of overview, for example of dependencies and priorities in the project portfolio. A simple example: you ask a team of specialists to estimate the workload for a work package, but you do not know how busy they are. This means that a single step that requires one day of work on paper may take ten days in real project life because other issues take priority.

Especially in complex projects that break new ground, a lot of information is missing at the beginning. This is where agile planning makes sense. Those who rigidly fix the scope and timeframe run a high risk of neither delivering the desired result nor meeting the timeline.

2. Unforeseen events

Your project is just getting started, the team is on board, and then it happens: an unfortunate event disrupts your plan. This could be an external crisis, such as a pandemic, or a bottleneck of your own making. Your project grinds to a halt.

There is only one case where this becomes truly difficult: if “unplanned” also means “unanticipated”, and you have no contingencies in place. Projects that neglect such risks will be out of time in a crisis. Those who plan projects without a contingency plan and sufficient buffers will reach their goal too late. Or they will deliver a quality that disappoints their stakeholders.

3. Blind spots in project management

The art of aligning planning and reality is called project management. As described above, this requires solid resource and risk management. However, it often remains a sober numbers game. Factors such as capacity, budget and dependencies are taken into account. This is done as if the project were a machine, with input and output being mechanically linked.

But it is still people who run projects. Those who are supposed to make their contribution as stakeholders or as experts are human beings with their own interests and sensitivities.

If they do not work together properly, any problem will be exacerbated. For example, when a bottleneck occurs but the affected teams are unaware of it because everyone is working in their own silo. Or when cost-cutting measures are on the table and you don’t know if it’s worth the commitment. Or when the error culture is not very good and subprojects embellish their status reports.

Leading a project therefore also means leading with empathy and giving people guidance. Otherwise, it will be difficult to turn the management’s plan into a plan that is shared by all.

Often underestimated: the human factor

 

It is a commonplace that hums beings are not machines. Nevertheless, it is important for project managers to keep this in mind. Employees and stakeholders bring their personal experiences and habits, professional motivations, and personal issues to work.

Not every individual has the same knowledge, the same desire for change, the best rapport with others, or an intrinsic interest in the success of the project. If you want everyone to contribute in a timely manner, you as a manager will need much more than a perfect Gantt chart.

Soft leadership skills can make all the difference. In its “Pulse of the Profession 2023” industry report, the Project Management Institute (PMI) identifies four “power skills”: in addition to problem solving and strategic thinking, the study emphasizes two interpersonal aspects:

Communication

and

Collaborative leadership.

Companies that foster these skills have significantly higher project success rates. For example, the risk of scope creep is significantly lower: Projects in companies that do not prioritize power skills are affected by scope creep 40 percent of the time, compared to only 28 percent in companies with stronger power skills.

Our experience confirms that projects make better progress when leaders convincingly communicate the sense and purpose behind them. When they spread infectious optimism, meet everyone at their level of knowledge, and deal with doubt and resistance with empathy. The human factor must be part of risk management, especially in major transformations, and requires its own measures.

Navigating your path to success

Bottlenecks, silo thinking, resistance? Feel free to contact
us for a one-on-one dialogue about your challenge:

6 Fundamentals for a sound project timing

1. Replacing rough estimates with reliable figures:

Let’s start with the basics: realistic planning. As a project manager, you are modeling the reality of the project over the next few months or years. This means that you calculate with unknowns, design the most likely scenario, and schedule milestones accordingly.

Are you already familiar with the type of project you are in charge of? Maybe because this project type recurs in your organization, like a product launch, for instance? In this case, you can plan the project from the top down and build on your experience. People in the organization are also familiar with the process. They can give you qualified feedback on your plan, and make corrections if necessary.

This top-down approach is less suitable for new projects that involve different parts of the company that you do not normally work with. For example: A company links its production planning to real-time logistics data from its suppliers. In this case, it makes sense to gather detailed information about available resources from external partners from the bottom up.

The more inexperienced the involved colleagues are, the more important it is to start by asking simple questions. Make sure that all groups understand the upcoming process and, for example, record exactly what skills and capacities you need at certain stages. This will help you assess whether you need additional training or external expertise.

In large projects, planning is so extensive that it should be a separate project phase with sufficient resources. That is because you need more than just a schedule: Here, a full-fledged business case is required. An example would be a post-merger integration in an international corporation with tens of thousands of employees. Here it may take several months to complete the planning.

2. Clear prioritization:

Is your project going to have to wait for resources because another project is taking longer than planned – or are you going to get prioritized? When in doubt, management should set clear priorities in the project portfolio. Having clear priorities does not come as a given.

3. Flexible reserves:

There will always be change, so plan for adequate buffers. A Management Reserve (MR) for exceptional events and a Contingency Reserve (CR) for pre-identified risks are recommended, especially for complex projects. The MR is controlled by top management and is often in the range of 5-10 percent of the total budget. The CR is measured by how much the worst-case scenario would cost.

4. Mission and motivation:

What kind of value does your current project deliver, and how does it contribute to the company’s vision and strategy? How valuable are the contributions of all stakeholders? Do not underestimate the importance of strong messaging. Even if it is “only” the fifth software optimization this quarter. You don’t need to use lofty rhetoric. The point is to keep the big picture and (even small) progress in perspective.

5. Cultural mission:

At the beginning of the project, find an agreement with the team on how they will work together on a day-to-day basis. Which values and behaviors are to be held dear under all circumstances, if you are to achieve your goal as planned? Revisit this topic throughout the project and invite the team to engage in critical reflection. This is especially important when different areas and “subcultures” are involved.

6. Talk is golden:

Status updates and project management tools are a great way to share information within the team. However, this is by no means enough, as you will also need to get your stakeholders on board. In addition, some team members may be less motivated than others, and you will have to keep them committed. Skepticism about the project, a lack of engagement – these are obstacles we can always expect to see in project management.

Make sure to communicate regularly about where the project stands, what is going according to plan, and how you are dealing with issues. Don’t just stick to written media for this, such as a project newsletter. Also consider inviting your stakeholders to meet face-to-face, e.g., in an open dialog roundtable with the sponsor. And especially if the project gets off track, you should go into retreat as a team, with workshops or larger events. Make sure you have enough time for such interventions to keep your project on schedule. It’s worth it!

2024-03-11, grosse-hornke
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