Welcome to the Era of Hyper Schedule Compression; Project Deadlines Are Getting Tight—And the Pressure's On
BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY
It's a 24/7 economy but time is in finite supply. So global leaders have to figure out how to make every minute count. In an era of hyper schedule compression, project leaders need to decide what has to be done immediately—and what can be pushed back or even eliminated.
It was an ambitious project right from the start.
Funded by the European Union (EU), the EU-China Financial Services Cooperation Project was aimed at nothing less than modernizing China's entire financial services industry. And it was all scheduled to happen in precisely three years. But shortly after the team arrived in China, the project plan was thrown off track by the imminent division of the People's Bank of China into two separate institutions. Worse, the SARS virus outbreak forced the project team to return to Europe. When the project finally resumed months later, virtually all the work remained to be done—and by the original project completion date.
Compressed schedules are fast becoming a fixture of today's 24/7 global economy. From the public sector to the private sector, and in activities as diverse as construction, software development, engineering and consulting, project managers and their teams are increasingly finding themselves up against tighter and tighter deadlines.
For project leaders, the challenge is stark: Get the job done quickly and efficiently—without sacrificing quality or killing the team in the process. The good news is that other seasoned project leaders have been there before and have tips, tricks and techniques to share.
For the EU project, it was a game of high-stakes catch-up. When it picked up the project in September 2003, the team was forced to face the ugly reality that it had little more than two-thirds of the anticipated time in which to deliver 100 percent of the intended deliverables.
And it was quite a set of deliverables: strengthen China's financial services' regulatory and supervisory authorities, improve their training methods and materials, and build deeper inter-organizational relationships between Chinese and European financial institutions.
But it was clear the project landscape had evolved since the team had first visited the previous January, explains Ian Radcliffe, director of training and consultancy at Brussels, Belgium-based European Savings Banks Group, the leader of the consortium tasked with delivering the project.
As a representative body with 900 European banks in 25 countries as members, the group could draw on a wide pool of experts from banking, insurance and securities sectors. Banking professionals from France's Caisse Nationale des Caisses d'Epargne, the United Kingdom's Lloyds TSB, Sweden's Swedbank and Germany's Savings Banks Foundation for International Cooperation all took part.
What was quite evident, though, was how thinly spread those experts would need to be.
“Not only had the number of project ‘counterparts’ for whom we were delivering the materials increased from three to four—owing to the split of the People's Bank of China—but the accelerating pace of change in China meant the uptake for what we were offering was enormous,” he explains.
Steering committee meetings—involving a slew of Chinese governmental bodies—were held twice a year to help keep things on track, balancing resources, deliverables and timescales.
“We knew from the outset that we'd be reworking the plan every six months, because that was in the initial project specification. But it was the extent of the changes that we were seeing that was challenging—due to a combination of the timescale and the speed at which things were moving on the ground,” recalls Mr. Radcliffe.
“Our message to our project teams is ‘focus, focus and focus.’ … Make sure stakeholder ownership and accountability are defined and maintained—with early and continuous engagement.”
—TOM CLEAR, SPINVOX, MARLOW, ENGLAND
“The pace of change meant that the emphasis of the project altered as time progressed, and sometimes new requirements were added in between the six-monthly reworking of plans. The pace of uptake by the [stakeholders] increased as the project progressed, in particular as they appreciated more the value of the expertise on offer.”
Activities were overlapped and linked, for instance, to an extent far beyond that originally envisaged. Much of the training material was delivered through specialist seminars, and a decision was made to link them where possible, so that they happened consecutively, or to overlap ones that covered different topics.
“With approximately 200 people at each seminar, it took a lot of commitment from the Chinese side to release so many people at once,” says Mr. Radcliffe.
The level of commitment was matched by his own project team. “We were holding multiple events at locations all over China at the same time. It called for a lot of long days, late nights, extensive travel and clever scheduling,” he says. To secure that kind of commitment—and avoid a mutiny—the team was “constantly encouraged and supported by consortium members able to call on considerable resource and expertise.”
Then the team finally caught a break. As work progressed, the EU was impressed enough by the considerable progress made in catching up to actively seek ways of extending the deadline to the maximum permissible under its own governance rules. Originally slated to finish on 31 December 2005, the project was granted a rare extension and rebaselined: A new completion date of 31 December 2006, one year later, was authorized.
And after some 200 European experts had delivered 8,000 person-days of training and assistance, the project officially closed within the revised schedule.
Of course not every project team can get an extension—no matter how desperately it's needed.
Sometimes it helps to cast a quizzical eye at the project deliverables. Sure, they're all nice to have—but how many are must-haves? On a project where every minute counts, there's no point devoting time to actions that can be delayed, deferred or simply eliminated if doing so doesn't jeopardize the overall deliverable.
Take Alameda, California, USA-based Perforce Software. A vendor of computer configuration management solutions, the company understands all too well it has to keep innovating to retain and grow market share. But these days, product-development cycles are getting shorter and shorter all the time.
And when timescales are tight, it's up to the project managers to make a judgment call on the objectives each development cycle is trying to meet, says David Robertson, the company's Wokingham, England-based director of European operations.
“We have to make tough decisions about what planned features we leave in a planned product release and what we take out,” he says. “If a particular feature looks like it will disproportionately impact the timescale and resource requirement, we'll defer it until the next development cycle rather than jeopardize the timetable.”
Project leaders must also ask tough questions about the project due date. It may be real—but is it really required? There may be more wiggle room than first supposed.
As companies outsource activities once retained in-house, the resulting buyer-seller relationship means schedules that might once have been debated and negotiated are simply being imposed—often without thought for the consequences, says Dean Forbes, London, England-based vice president of international sales at U.S. software vendor Primavera.
Sophisticated companies are now able to extrapolate from past projects to estimate the impact of proposed timescales.
“Based on their previous experience, they're able to say: ‘I have a 95 percent chance of completing by October, but only a 15 percent chance of completing by August, which is your desired end-date, Mr. Customer,’” Mr. Forbes explains.
The resulting discussion might not be comfortable—but good leadership is about venturing outside the comfort zone, and doing what's right, not simply what's expeditious.
On the Fly
Once the project has been pared back to the core required deliverables and the timescale has been finalized, it's up to project leaders to see that the due date and the project's objectives are met.
Effective planning is a given. Yet with extraordinary schedule compression increasingly becoming the norm, that often means planning “on the fly,” says William Stronge, PMP, solutions manager at bottled water giant Nestlé Waters North America, Greenwich, Connecticut, USA.
The techniques of project planning are well-known, he says: the creation of the work breakdown structure, precedence diagramming, activity duration and resource-consumption calculation.
But schedule compression has a knack of equating to planning compression, too.
“Companies don't necessarily have the time to focus on these activities to the same extent that they used to,” Mr. Stronge explains. “Rather than going through a very formal work breakdown structure analysis, they're sometimes forced to work with estimates, which can be something of a learning curve. What's more, project managers are often working on four or five different projects, and are being asked to juggle time and resources across all of them. Carrying out activities in parallel, rather than sequentially, is vital if project durations are to be minimized.”
“When you're fast-tracking activities or carrying out multiple tasks in parallel, it's more important than ever that everyone knows what's going on—horizontally and vertically.”
—PAULO A. FERREIRA, PMP, INDEPENDENT CONSULTANT, SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL
It's a project management environment in which effective communication is paramount.
“When you're fast-tracking activities or carrying out multiple tasks in parallel, it's more important than ever that everyone knows what's going on—horizontally and vertically,” says Paulo A. Ferreira, PMP, a São Paulo, Brazil-based consultant at Six Sigma Brasil consultancy. “For the project leader, there's an active need to step up and communicate more than would normally be the case. We need to focus on process, people and communication.”
Risk—and a rapid response to adversity—takes on an added dimension, too. A delay or additional resource requirement that might be absorbed in a longer project timescale can have potentially fatal consequences when those timescales are compressed.
That's the case at SpinVox, a Marlow, England-based vendor of a service that converts voicemail to text that can be forwarded via e-mail, posted on a blog or otherwise published.
Chief commercial officer Tom Clear holds up the company's global rollout as a real-life case study of hyper schedule compression. In the past two years, SpinVox has partnered with 13 telecom companies to launch its service in six countries on five continents. And he says he expects that number to double over the next 12 months.
In short, it's a sales and marketing land grab, where every day is precious.
“Our message to our project teams is ‘focus, focus and focus,’” says Mr. Clear. “Review what was delivered last week as well as what is planned for this week and next. Understand the risks and have in place mitigation actions, and make sure stakeholder ownership and accountability are defined and maintained—with early and continuous engagement.”
SpinVox is hardly alone, of course. Every project leader has been there—under the gun with the deadline looming. And then, time's up.
Leadership 2009 www.pmi.org