Endangered species



Project managers need to save scheduling from extinction—and save some projects from failing in the process. BY DAN PATTERSON, PhD, PMP

I've noticed a surprising trend during the economic downturn: Fewer capital expenditure projects were being sanctioned and funded, but the need for third-party assistance with schedule analysis and risk assessments actually increased dramatically. This phenomenon indicates a threat to the field of project management—the gradual extinction of the savvy project scheduler.

Available software tools are more powerful than ever. Although this software provides collaborative, web-based, multi-user capabilities, project managers still struggle to bring projects in successfully under the triple constraint of cost, time and scope.

Project management boils down to “planning the work” and “working the plan.”

Top-Down Planning

Critical path method (CPM) scheduling is the de facto standard for scheduling projects. Estimating durations, sequencing work and assigning resources are all common steps. Yet all too often, project managers who follow this method wind up with a plan that is either unachievable or unrealistic.

A major mistake is to jump straight into the development of the planned work rather than adopt a more formal, top-down approach that better establishes the work breakdown structure (WBS). Project managers should only detail out the work once they have defined the project objectives, elaborated the scope definition and expanded the deliverables.

The WBS of a well-developed schedule should show the entire scope of the project, with the underlying required work encapsulated as activities. Project plans often omit this formal structure, and that oversight inevitably leads to scheduling challenges.

Definitely Maybe

Historically, scheduling has been a deterministic science in which activities have definitive durations and single-point cost estimates. This approach is being replaced by estimates that, combined with risk-analysis techniques, give not only forecasted completion dates, but also confidence levels for the probability that the completion date will be achieved.


The term risk analysis tends to convey the influence of circumstances such as inclement weather or mechanical failure. In my experience, I have discovered that 75 percent of the risk exposure within projects actually comes from scope uncertainty and poorly built schedules—not discrete events captured in a risk register. From a planning perspective, this is actually good news, because scope definition is typically easier to handle and reduce than external risk events. Not only does certainty-based scheduling help pinpoint problem areas within a project, it also gives the team a range of dates to target, rather than a specific day.

〉Join the discussion on the Voices on Project Management blog at PMI.org.

Turning good intentions into positive outcomes—that's what project managers do, said former U.S. President Bill Clinton at PMI Global Congress 2010—North America in October. Go to the blog to read more about his speech and the specific challenges facing project managers in the modern world.

Simplifying Matters

Sitting in a recent project review meeting, I heard a project manager requesting a copy of the project plan. When the lead project scheduler provided a Gantt chart that listed more than 5,000 activities, the project manager responded, “That's great, but where's one that the entire team can understand?”

Excessively detailed schedules can overwhelm project teams. Breaking down a project into grouped activities is the most useful way to analyze costs, schedule, risks and performance. The groups may be disciplines, locations, types of work or phases within the project.

Analysis Paralysis

The ultimate objective of a project plan is to have a target against which to track performance. Project metric analysis goes well beyond applying formulas and calculation to incorporate thresholds and tripwires that give context to the results of the formulas. Does knowing we have “15 open-ended activities” or “five missed deadlines” really tell us anything meaningful? It would be more useful to know the impact of the open-ended activities, or the cost and schedule implications of the missed deadlines.

The U.S. Defense Contract Management Agency publishes metrics and tripwires as a means of standardizing schedule quality checks and setting standards for contractors. Such initiatives are a breath of fresh air to scheduling, and I expect to see similar initiatives across multiple industries in the near future.


Dan Patterson, PhD, PMP, is the CEO and president of Acumen in Austin, Texas, USA. He specializes in project analytics, risk management, scheduling, estimating, earned value and artificial intelligence.

But the Goalposts Keep Moving

Maintaining an up-to-date schedule is a difficult enough task in the planning phase, but it becomes infinitely more involved during execution.

Project trending can give a more useful indication of performance than simply looking at a single snapshot in time. Many projects track performance trending during execution, but few do so during planning, which is often an iterative process.

If we can plan and forecast the work that is required for project completion and factor in the uncertainties, complexities and risks that may occur during execution, then failure will be a thing of the past. This scenario may be easier to describe than to achieve, but adopting the practices above will align project teams to consistently deliver successful results. PM




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