Dynamic Project Planning and Catching Up When You Are Behind

No one likes running late, however, while we may not like to hear it, running behind is a constant for any consultant actively working with a client. Unexpected circumstances and setbacks occur in all projects, regardless of how well one plans and accounts for that risk. Though these circumstances are very often beyond our control, there are strategies that can be employed to minimize the impact they have on the project timeline. Though it may seem counterintuitive, flexibility is the key.

Critical Pathing and Avoiding ‘Dead Time’ 

The first step to avoiding setbacks is developing a critical path and establishing a project plan. The critical path is the sequence of tasks or activities that must be conducted to complete the project. Critical pathing requires you to think with the end in mind and by envisioning the end goal and timeline of the project you can exert some level of control over dead time (any period when you or your resources are not actively engaged in productive work) that is sure to exist during the project. In consulting, dead time is most often attributed to a bottleneck that has been created by your client. Admittedly, this can be very frustrating, especially when there is more work to be done. Including expected dead time in the critical path and project plan is key to avoiding falling behind on a project. Keep in mind that clients have busy schedules and the project that we are working is only one of their many priorities.

Once the project plan is created and the critical path has been established, you can begin to think through two questions. First, what tasks can I get started with right away? Think of this in reference to the concept of low hanging fruit; complete tasks that are simple and do not require the help of your client to get started on or complete. This might include scheduling calls and meetings or developing an interview guide. Second, what tasks in the critical path could cause dead time? The answer to this will allow you to plan for dead time and schedule a time during the project to get ahead on more tasks that do not require the involvement of the client. Using dead time effectively is a great tactic to account for the dynamic and ever-changing nature of project planning.

Dynamic Project Planning

Despite our best efforts, project planning and critical pathing can only get us so far. We must be prepared to make adjustments to the project plan that has been created. As you gather more information, you may realize that certain steps in the plan are non-essential and do not belong on the critical path. A best practice to account for this, especially while working on large, complex projects, is to reassess the project plan and critical path on a weekly basis. It is here where you reprioritize and streamline the activities to be completed based on the information that you have gathered in the initial stages of the project. This can help reduce the time and resources allocated to unnecessary tasks. Conversely, you may discover opportunities to expand the project. In both cases, involving the steering committee in the replanning and reprioritization stage is important to mitigating further dead time and keeping the project on track.

Working Through Challenging Times

Despite your best efforts to follow these strategies and to maintain flexibility in your project plans, time can still get away from you and you can get behind schedule. There will be emergencies, and in such situations, you may need to put in extra hours to meet project deadlines. This is obviously not ideal but does happen. In these instances, it is important that you or your team leaders are both motivating and supporting of the team to get them through the most challenging of times. However, you must be cautious not to let emergencies become a habit, as it leads to burnout for everyone involved.

One of our partners often says, “as soon as you make a plan, it is wrong”. This is the true challenge of keeping a project on track when working with client. With that being said, employing these strategies – building the plan and critical path, limiting dead time, replanning, and reprioritizing – can help you mitigate the perpetual state of being behind schedule.

Written by: Dean McMann

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About the Author: Dean McMann is a Founding Partner at McMann & Ransford with 35+ years of experience in consulting and professional services.  He is a sought-after expert and speaker on topics of: B2B differentiation, professional services best practices, and overcoming commoditization.  In addition to his extensive experience in the Professional Services space, Dean also serves on the board of various non-profit organizations.

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