A Matter of Time

A Matter of Time

Ian Neal

Managing the conflicts between SCOPE, COST and TIME is a key project management skill. Understanding the relationship between tasks and the resources required is an integral ingredient to the project management mix.

The euphoria of winning a project is usually followed by a flat period immediately after as the team asks “How we going to deliver this?”

This is a big challenge for experienced project professionals within larger companies and it is a greater challenge for a startup or a midsize organisation.
Undertaking projects and project management is an inherently risky business. The reality is that few projects finish on time or within budget.

So why does this happen and how can it be managed to minimize the adverse impacts of cost over runs and delay?
A colleague of mine, Robert Bolton, from Real Capacity is an expert in Theory of Constraints and he has given me some valuable ideas which form the basis of this article.

A  project is made up of three conflicting elements- SCOPE, COST and TIME.

‘Managing the conflicts between SCOPE, COST and TIME is a key project management skill. Understanding the relationship between tasks (which deliver SCOPE) and the resources required (which consume both TIME  and COST) is an integral ingredient to the project management mix. ‘ 

Typically, the COST, price and payment schedule and other financial parameters are determined in detail.

The SCOPE is also usually determined in a fair amount of detail.

The element with the most uncertainty is TIME. The ability of the team to deliver the project on TIME, is rarely if ever considered by the deal makers. Many projects are actually set up for failure from the very beginning  BECAUSE the deal makers take so much of the time required to actually deliver the project. They negotiate too long, trying to get every advantage for their side, and the end date is not moved by the amount already lost.

No project is ever perfect, but Roberts tips following will help improve project delivery within any environment.

  1. Split the project selling and planning phase from the execution phase.  This requires strong internal management protocols.  But clearly defining when a project is in Execution mode is a key management control point.
  2. Develop clear project goals or deliverables. This should be expressed as a benefit statement for the client or end user of the project.  This becomes the focus of all the project team.
  3. Build a network of tasks, starting from the project goal deliverables and working  backwards towards the start. This network should be done visually.  Construct it with post-it notes on a whiteboard. This network map defines what has to be done, no more or less.  But not who has to complete the task. This planning phase is rarely undertaken and is a key reason for failure. Only after the network map is complete do we add in resource allocation or  dependencies.   Only at this stage, should it be entered into suitable project scheduling software.  Once the above is completed, a more robust project length or lead time can be estimated.
  4. Undertake a project review by an internal management member, who is not intimately associated with winning the deal or project.  This review, by providing a fresh set of eyes, will add clarity to what is being promised to be delivered and should highlight any risks that are not obvious to those involved in winning the deal. This does is not have to be a long and bureaucratic.
  5. Regular project team updates. Once a project moves into the execution phase, it becomes a quite a dynamic environment. All the project team members updated and motivated will be a key to creating the right project culture of delivery. A weekly update highlighting what has been achieved, and asking what are our goals in the next week or two. Also don’t forget to ask what are the issues likely in the next 1 to 4 weeks?
  6. Execution phase progress to be visible and accessible to all team members. It is useful to have a common project meeting room or gathering point.  At this meeting location, visible project plans with performance status sets the right mode for project execution. A visual chart with traffic light indicators for task status is a great way for the project resources to see where they are up to.
  7. Have the project resources report regularly as an estimate to complete.  It is not common for the project resources to provide a time estimate to complete the task.  By reporting in this way (by asking “how long will it take to complete the current task?”), we are thinking forward, not backwards. This method highlights problems before they occur.  Once highlighted, they can be addressed more easily earlier in the project than later on.
  8. Do not multi- task. A common trap for is for the team members to be undertaking a number of tasks at the same time. Whatever the reason for multitasking, the effect is the same.  A lot of activity is under taken with limited completion of specific tasks. Have you ever head of a project task being 90% complete, but still requires double the effort (or time) to complete? Multitasking is actually the biggest cause of this symptom and causes lost time in project execution.  The solution to prevent multi-tasking is to work on one task at a time to completion.  Although counter intuitive,  this does work.

In summary even simple projects are complex. There are differing levels of uncertainty within the SCOPE, COST and TIME elements.  The greatest level of uncertainty is the project TIME.    By clearly separating the planning from the execution phase, resources or project teams focus is clearer.  They know what they are aiming to do.

During the execution phase, the project leader should be focused on managing the time uncertainty.  How can we complete the project on or before the due-date? Focus on time to complete stages, rather than percentage complete measures and DO NOT have people multitasking. Nail components to the floor-finish them with absolute vigor and focus, then once complete move to the next element. Get into a habit of completing tasks before starting others and momentum builds fast within the team and projects start to complete on time!!


Ian NealBy Ian Neal, TEC Chair