Effective management of fixed deadline projects

Victor Anyosa Soca, PMP, General Manager, PM&B


In most cases, the project manager is the individual who produces the plan project---which includes the work breakdown structure (WBS) and schedule---from the requirements that he or she receives. However, in many situations, the project deadline is a key restriction, a non-negotiable fixed date. Although a fixed deadline project would seem to give little room to implement project management processes, it actually offers one of the best opportunities for implementing processes and good practices from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)---Third edition (Project Management Institute, 2004). This presentation shows a methodology on planning projects with time constraints, demonstrating that these situations are wonderful opportunities to reveal the value of project management.

Our methodology involves the use of reverse planning strategies, encouraging an effective usage of WBS and creating a highly detailed schedule with tasks relating to the risks of this kind of project. It is extremely important to make certain that the project does include all of the minimum required activities for its successful completion.

Among the main critical success factors of this kind of project is support from the management committee and functional managers, which will ensure the commitment of the work teams, the leadership proficiency of the project manager, and his or her analytic capability to find solutions for every problem that may come up in any stage of the project life cycle.

The progress of the project needs to be monitored so that corrective actions can be taken after any gap. For this purpose, the earned value technique is an effective tool.

At the end of the session, assistants will have the chance to share their lessons learned over the application of this methodology.

Environment of Fixed Deadline Projects

Globalization and a high degree of similarity between companies have generated a very competitive scenario that requires making deadline projects. Examples include the case of two companies merging where the program requires a starting date for the operations,; product launching for which the launching date has to be earlier than that of the competence; and legal projects for which the government requires the application of a law or norm by a fixed date. The anniversary of an organization and products needed for sale before the Christmas holiday are other cases in which fixed deadlines are needed.

The aim of this paper is to provide a management methodology that will enable such projects to be completed by the required date.

This paper will also discuss whether it is useful to apply all of the good practices described in the PMBOK® Guide. We will also describe a fixed deadline project management methodology using a reverse planning method.

The reverse planning method balances scope, time, and expected quality:

  • Deliverables vs. estimated times
  • Quality metrics vs. achievement times

Reverse Planning Methodology

The reverse planning consists in elaborating a schedule from a defined scope, going through the different steps shown in the flux diagram of Exhibit 1.

Reverse Planning Cycle

Exhibit 1--Reverse Planning Cycle

1. Scope Statement

For good fixed deadline project planning, it is important that the scope be defined in a complete form. Unfortunately, we cannot define the scope incrementally. A meeting plan of information gathering is elaborated with each functional management to define the project's deliverables and its respective priorities. The deliverable list of management and engineering, and the acceptance criteria of the deliverables of the project need to be very clear.

The priority of the deliverables must be defined in order to exclude those that cannot be made during the execution of the project. The constraints of the ending project and milestones, as well as the assumptions, need to be analyzed. Despite the briefness of the time that is available, it is necessary to analyze the risks to determine the contingency reserve of time and cost.

It is also necessary to establish a procedure of version control of the deliverables and the requirements of the project.

2. Work Breakdown Structure

It is necessary to elaborate a work breakdown structure (WBS) that allows decentralizing the scope. The WBS must allow assignment of people in charge of direct form to facilitate making decisions. The WBS will also help to organize the team of the project; the type of WBS to be followed is chosen based on the area of the organization. Then, a team leader is assigned by each area of the organization that is identified as a participant of the project.

Each team leader decomposes the WBS to the work package level, specifies the requirements that must be achieved for each work package, and determines the criteria of quality that the functional management requires and the beginning and approximated end dates. The risks of time achievement of each work package are analyzed and the contingency reserve of time is determined.

Exhibit 2 is an example of a WBS diagram.

WBS Diagram

Exhibit 2---WBS Diagram

3. Activity List

In the activity list, the activities necessary to develop each work package mentioned in the WBS are detailed. Each activity and its predecessors are specified.

The specifications for each activity are analyzed, and opposite case risks are identified, as are possible answers generating more activities. The person in charge of the activity is in control of the response to the planned risk. It is identified if the order of (i.e., the precedence of) the activities is due to a best practice or to an obligatory order by some constraints of engineering. The sequential activities that belong to best practices could be candidates for fast-tracking.

4. Activity Sequencing

As a basis to the activity list, activity sequencing is expressed with graphs easily showing the logical precedence relationship between each activity. A recommended format is PDM (precedence diagram method), which consists of a series of nodes connected by arrows, where nodes represent the activities and arrows represent the precedence relationship.

First, make a project schedule network showing great deliverables and estimations of duration of great magnitude to obtain a first idea of the project ending on time. Second, make a project schedule network with the work packages; this will determine if it is possible to achieve the required end date. Third, make a definitive project schedule network at the level of activities.

Initial milestones and required end date risks of achievement are identified, people in charge of the analysis of the impact assign themselves, and some possible responses to the risks are determined.

5. Resource Estimating

In this step, resources (persons, equipment, and material) with performance are determined, indicating the moment when they will be necessary. As an entry, it requires an activity list and an inventory of all the resources, their characteristics, and their availability. Activity resources are estimated and gathered in a hierarchical manner using the ascending method.

Risks of resources’ availability are analyzed, and the time reserves to respond to the risk are determined. The resource calendars are identified. RBS (Resource Breakdown Structure) is elaborated, helping us to present it to the functional management with which we are going to negotiate the different types of resources and their quantity.

6. Activity Duration

The estimation of activity duration is based on resource capacity that is available for performing the assigned tasks. In the case of human resources, it is based on one's own experience with and knowledge regarding the assigned activities. In the case of equipment, the estimation is based on the equipment's capacity.

In making these estimations, it is also very useful for the organization to enter historical reference data as a resource.

Risks of achievement of the estimation of activity duration are analyzed, and duration reserve is determined.

7. Reverse Planning

Once each activity's duration has been estimated, the activities are symbolized in a network diagram. This diagram will have the format shown in Exhibit 3.

Network Diagram Node

Exhibit 3---Network Diagram Node

Reverse proposal planning is based on the critical path method (CPM), with the difference being that early start, early finish, late start, and late finish times are expressed as remaining time for the end of the project date, which is a mandatory parameter for fixed deadline projects.

Reverse planning methodology consists in estimating the start date of the project based on the known end date, or finish date.

The first step to develop the planning is to complete the duration (DU) in the diagram. As an example, we will show a case with these activities: A, B, c, D, and E, having durations of 2, 4, 5, 5, and 3 days, respectively. The initial graph will resemble that shown in Exhibit 4.

Network Diagram Showing Activity Duration

Exhibit 4---Network Diagram Showing Activity Duration

We then calculate late times from the right to the left, beginning with the final activity and ending with the initial one, as it appears in Exhibit 5.

Calculating Late Time

Exhibit 5---Calculating Late Time

After finishing the initial activity, we go on calculating early time from the left to the right of Exhibit 6, beginning with the initial activity and ending with the final activity.

Calculating Early Time

Exhibit 6---Calculating Early Time

The critical path is finished when nodes have a float equal to zero. In this example, the critical path is A→B→C→→E.

This diagram shows that to reach the objective of ending the project by a fixed deadline, the project must be started by at least 14 days before to fixed deadline.

8. Strategy to Optimize Critical Path

If, after performing reverse planning, the date of project start that is arrived at is earlier than the current date, the following strategies should be applied:


In fast-tracking, the critical path is analyzed with regard to those activities that are sequential, and it is determined whether any of these activities can be performed in a parallel manner (i.e., simultaneously). The potential risks of rework are also identified. Fast-tracking is done on the activities with the minimum risk. The contingency reserve of time and cost as a result of applying fast-tracking is also considered. Therefore there is a daily control that enables necessary adjustments..


In “crashing,” the critical path is analyzed with regard to the additional cost of shortening the duration by a particular time unit (e.g., weeks) for each critical activity. Crashing (increasing resources) is then done for the activities with the minimum additional costs.

Inquire about dependencies

  1. The sequence of the activities is analyzed on the critical path, and jointly with the experts, new forms of dependencies are proposed to shorten duration. Potential risks due to the new form of work are identified, and the additional reserve of time and cost that will be needed is analyzed.

Limit the Scope

  1. Determine the latest that the project manager must make to achieve the required end date. To do this, he or she must review the priorities of the deliverables that were defined in the scope statement. Consider engineering constraints and deliverables business core that are mandatory..

  2. Also consider whether some non-high--priority deliverables happen to be pending for operations and could work like another project. Identify the secondary risks that are generated, and update the contingency reserve of time and cost.

9. Schedule

Once the start date is later than or the same as the current date after optimizing the critical path, we can develop the schedule. It should be structured according to the WBS, that is to say, by deliverables, work package, then activities. To elaborate the schedule management plan create a procedure that contains how it will be updated, verified, and controlled to advance of the schedule according to indicators, for example the schedule performance index (SPI), schedule variance (SV).

The schedule management plan must contain an ascending system according to SPI ranks. It uses traffic lights (green means “OK,” yellow means that there is risk, and red means that there is a problem), and a schedule change control system. The SPI and SV are measured for each component of the WBS.

Identify the deliverables that will be contracted with each supplier in an elaborated, detailed schedule. For the schedule change control system, bear in mind that the required end date is not possible to change. To elaborate a list of milestones, a milestone is as important as the required end date. The responsibilities of achievement of the milestones will be assigned to the respective functional management. The schedule baseline is generated.

10. Micromanagement and Risk Management


Micromanagement is performed on the critical activities of the project. All of the critical activities must be specified in detail and must be supervised periodically to make sure that the specification is sufficiently clear and understandable for the people who execute these activities. The preventive and corrective actions are made with the support of the supervisors and/or team leaders so that they are more effective, and are at the same time communicated to the project manager who is making the decisions.

It is recommended that the team leaders perform activities of team development to strengthen the confidence and spirit of the team. The communication between the team leaders and the project manager needs to be strengthened. The supervisors and/or team leaders must know the activities that they are supervising to determine if team development is necessary in the execution of the activity.

Risk Management

Consolidate the initial risks with associated risks to the work package, the schedule, the strategy that is being used to optimize the critical path, and, in general, with all the risks identified previously.

The contingency reserve of time and costs associated with the risks previously identified is consolidated. This quantifies the alert to the risks, and the person who is closest to taking the action from response to the risk is assigned; this person is not necessarily a supervisor. The associated risks to critical activities are measured in daily form, and it is necessary that a person be available full time for monitoring and control. This person reports directly to the project manager.

In some cases, contingency plans are prepared. If the response to the risks and the plans of contingency do not work, the project manager and/or the team leaders must have sufficient capacity to implement emergency plans (workarounds), having as a priority the achievement of dates for the critical activities. The plan of communications activities of tracking and control of risks are considered, mechanisms of an ascending system are implemented, with the objective of responding to risks in fast form overall to determine if they affect the schedule.

Negotiation with Functional Managers

Present the list of deliverables and critical activities to the functional management so that they become aware of all of the work that is to be done. The project manager must use the WBS, RBS, and a summary of schedule. Achieve commitment of the committee and the different functional managements.

Practical Case in an Insurance Company

As a practical case, we will use the merger of two Peruvian wealth insurance companies in 2004, Pacifica salud EPS and Novasalud, the latter being absorbed by the first. Examples from the documents that were used in this case are shown.

Work Breakdown Structure

The project WBS is drawn at an organizational level to include the entire required work. (See extract of the WBS shown in Exhibit 2.)

Activity List

Exhibit 7 shows an extract from the project activities and its attributes, such as duration and activity resources.

Activity list

Exhibit 7--Activity list

Network Diagram

All of the activities in a network diagram are deployed. The fixed deadline for the end of the project is August 2, 2004.

With the critical path method, it is estimated that the project start date must be 72 working days before the end of this project, in this case on April 20, 2004.

The critical path is determined for Activities 10, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 as shown in Exhibit 9.

Network diagram

Exhibit 9--Network diagram

As of May 17, 2004, we can see that it is necessary to apply the reverse planning strategies.
With it, a final schedule is made with a start date is of May 17, 2004, and maintaining the end date of August 2, 2004.


Exhibit 10 shows an extract from the schedule used for the project.

Activity schedule

Exhibit 10--Activity schedule

Learned Lessons with a Successful Case

  • Projects with a fixed deadline can be satisfactorily achieved, even when the initial estimation of the schedule exceeds the time allowed by this deadline.
  • Risk management is critical to maintaining the end date of the project.
  • Use of the project management methodology proposed in this paper is in accordance with the PMBOK® Guide.
  • Management committee is formed by high management
  • Among the main critical success factors is support from functional management, to define resources, management of deliverables, and risks
  • Earned value technique should be used for project control and for effective communication with the stakeholders.
  • Weekly meetings and detailed meeting acts with compromise dates should be carried out.
  • The project team should be rewarded.
  • Good management of suppliers is required.
  • Definition of cases of quality control must be improved.
  • Team work activities must be realized from the beginning of the project so that reliance strengthens.


  • Fixed deadline projects are splendid opportunities to demonstrate the value of the management of projects.
  • Effective use of the WBS, detailed schedule, and risk management enables successful fixed deadline project management
  • Leadership competence is very important in order to keep the project team aligned and compromised with the project goals.
  • The advance (project performance) is controlled with earned value techniques.


Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)-Third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

© 2008, Felipe Meléndez De La Cruz, Victor Anyosa Soca
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, North America



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