Expanded Schedules Pose Project Management Risks, Too
A project manager reflected on the challenges that emerged when her customer significantly extended her project’s schedule.
The initial goal was aggressive: get the work done in six months. This would require intense focus by the project team and cooperation from other parts of the enterprise. Soon, it became apparent that competing priorities within the enterprise threatened the project schedule.
The client elected to extend the end date by a year. This “relaxed” schedule was expected to give everyone time to create quality products … but things immediately began to come apart.
We’ve all worked on projects with overly aggressive schedules and are familiar with the attendant risks. What’s interesting is that there are also challenges when a schedule becomes too lax.
Perception of project priority plummets: Although the client asserted that the project remained high-priority and would take precedence over other day-to-day work, the relaxed schedule was seen as a mixed message by staff. It became harder to schedule meetings and reviews.
Personnel turnover increases: People change jobs. People retire. People transfer. New people arrive. This risk is faced by all projects, but projects with longer durations are exposed to more of it. On this project, agreements came undone when old players left and new players arrived.
Adjacent systems aren’t static: The project was about understanding and capturing requirements for augmenting an existing large, complex system and integrating those changes with connected systems. By itself, that is a challenging task. As the schedule was extended, it became more apparent that the adjacent systems weren’t holding still. They continued to evolve, making earlier analysis perishable.
Clients’ expectations can change: Given more time to think about the problem, client expectations continued to evolve. When everyone agreed it was a “short-fuse” project, there were agreements that a minimum functional set would be defined. With the schedule extension, clients resisted staying within the original scope.
The team loses its sense of urgency: Near-term goals are focusing. People on short-duration projects tend to understand their parts and work with a purpose. When the schedule was extended, it became easy for team members to put off tedious or unpleasant work.
Perfectionists become unbridled: Wanting to build the best product possible is a noble goal, but mature professionals realize that this aspiration must be tempered with schedule and resource constraints. With the elimination of a looming deadline, the perfectionist tendencies of some team members ran amok. Despite having more time, some work products were delayed weeks because of disagreements about font choice and verb tense that would never have held up the shorter project.
There are no bad actors in this story, just real people responding to different perceptions of time pressure. I consistently criticize using artificially constrained deadlines to communicate a false sense of urgency to a team. This example shows there is also danger in taking too much time to complete a project.
There is a “sweet spot” in a schedule that has the least amount of risk. Too aggressive is high-risk. Too leisurely, surprisingly, introduces risks of its own.