Project managers and IT executives share their top strategies for creating realistic schedules and keeping projects on track.
One of the most difficult aspects of project management is setting and then managing expectations of both clients and stakeholders. While creating a timeline and defining the scope of a project upfront is helpful, if the expectations are unrealistic, the schedule and budget can easily blow up.
What can project managers do to help ensure that all parties are on the same page and that projects hew closely to deadlines and budgets? Following are eight suggestions.
Put together the right team
Having confidence in the project team can go a long way when it comes to managing client and stakeholder expectations. That’s why Mike Sims, owner of ThinkLions, which provides business planning services, advises being “extremely picky when choosing individuals to be on the project team,” going so far as to “break the project down into smaller pieces and truly identify which individual has the necessary skill [or skills] for each particular task.”
“For tasks that take multiple team members, consider how these team members work together and whether their skills and personalities complement each other,” he suggests. “The better you are at matching the right individuals to the right tasks, the more effective your team will be at delivering a high-quality project.”
Build in a discovery period
“Oftentimes in project kickoff meetings — the first time anyone on the project team gets together to discuss the work ahead — stakeholders will immediately ask about [a] final delivery date, or timing for a first draft of the product for review,” explains Matt Eonta, senior product manager at inbound marketing company HubSpot. However, this isn’t always possible, especially for complex projects. Therefore, to properly set expectations, “there needs to be a clearly-defined discovery period where PMs and other stakeholders can effectively break down the project and determine the true scope. It costs time up front, but [it] saves a lot of stress… and scope creep in the long run.”
Document requirements — but don’t go overboard
“If your project includes business stakeholders it is critical that the business needs and requirements are well documented in a detailed scope statement,” says Alison Van Pelt, PMP, senior director at Cornerstone Advisors, banking and technology consultants. “Technical PMs often skip this step, an omission that can cause costly project budgeting and schedule overruns. Do the hard work of documentation and planning up front to have a smoother execution for all involved.”
That said, keep in mind that “every project plan and schedule doesn’t need to be complex and detailed,” she says. “More does not always equal better. Placing every task, no matter how large or small, into a project plan results in a micromanagement nightmare.”
Instead, “build a plan to manage the tasks at a higher level,” she advises. “Then give the resources detailed task checklists [that] they can self-manage and give you the rolled-up status for your schedule.” This allows the project manager to better manage the project without micromanaging it.
Create a realistic schedule (but pad it just in case)
“Create your schedule working backward from the committed date and then pad the date with buffer weeks (time which management is allowing for slippage in the schedule without communicating it to the team),” says Ben Rockwood, director of IT and Operations at IT automation company Chef Software. “For example, if you need to deliver something in 4 weeks, set the schedule for delivery in 2 or 3 weeks and allow for 1 to 2 weeks of buffer. If the team pulls off a miracle, great. But if they don’t, they already have time to allow for overages. This ensures an appropriate sense of urgency and a less stressful delivery timeline.”
Set and acknowledge milestones
“Set milestones to show the client how the project is expected to progress, and allow them to see and approve the work before moving on to each subsequent milestone,” suggests Sims. “This way, small issues do not grow to become unmanageable and any client dissatisfaction can be addressed immediately.”
Provide regular updates and demos to stakeholders
“Communication with your client is mandatory throughout each project,” says Tara Mulhern, a project manager at web design company WebTek. From the start of each project it is important to “inform [the] client [and stakeholders]… what’s expected from them in order to keep the project moving along to meet the deadline.” Then, during the course of the project, “send reminders to the client [and stakeholders] of upcoming deadlines.” And if, or when, delays or problems occur, “communicate the details [to] the client immediately.”
It’s also a good idea to give clients/stakeholders product demos as you progress.
“This is actually a key tenet of the Scrum methodology, but holding regular project or product demos with key stakeholders and decision-makers can be a real game-changer when it comes to [managing expectations],” says Eonta. “Demos allow decision makers to see for themselves if the project seems on track, ahead of schedule or behind schedule. And showing is almost always better and richer than telling.”
Plan for problems and potential conflicts
“When managing deadlines and projects, consider potential resource and technology challenges that might emerge,” says Shamim Mohammad, CIO at used car retailer CarMax. “Make sure there is time allocated for undiscovered work and develop a contingency plan for it. Lots of projects assume a happy path, but do not plan for unanticipated and undiscovered work, which will inevitably happen.”
Similarly, it’s important to keep an eye out for potential conflicts that could interfere with your project, such as other projects requiring your resources. “Understand your team members’ work flow,” says Mulhern. “Learn how much they can handle at once, because giving someone more than they can handle will jeopardize deadlines.” Also, “be aware of the distractions coming their way from other [projects] and help [them] manage their time.”
Be honest when things go wrong
If you want management/the client to have confidence in you and the project, “you need to be open, transparent, honest and specific,” says Ed Schwarz, vice president of Engineering, Gorilla Logic, a mobile and web applications development company. “When issues arise unexpectedly, communicate when you have clear, precise information, with the impacts already thought out at least at the immediate level.” And be sure to present workaround options or solutions.