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Managing Expectations: The Art and Science of Dynamic Scheduling

Everyone wants to know, with certainty, when a project will be over. 

Sometimes conditions dictate the project end date. The dynamic nature of projects makes managing expectations a necessity.

Of course, people also want to know how much projects will cost, but for now we will focus on the time factor.  

Schedules help to keep stakeholders on track and informed regarding the work to be done, when resources will be needed and when to expect when interim and final deliverables will be ready.  Target dates, deadlines and accomplishments motivate performers.  Schedules contribute to realistic expectations.

However, unrealistic schedules put unnecessary pressure on performers. Overly aggressive deadlines increase the risk of cutting corners and impacting the quality of the outcome.  Scheduling requires expertise, time, and effort across project life. 

Art and Science

Scheduling is both an art and a science.

The science of scheduling says that when you know the scope (requirements), you can identify the tasks and the resources required to perform them. You can estimate how much effort is required for each task and establish how the tasks relate to one another (dependencies). When you add in the availability of resources and their productivity and calendar realities, you can compute the schedule.  

When the right tools are used well, and the project is well protected from external forces (like ever shifting priorities that change resource availability), the scientific approach works fine.  

The art is bringing realistic thinking, negotiation and expectation management into play by applying emotional and social intelligence.  The art is needed when timeliness is critical to success, priorities shift, the availability of resources is fluid, effort estimates are less than perfect, external events get in the way and requirements change.  Some of these challenges will come up even in the most protected projects in the most enlightened environments.  Uncertainty and volatility are facts of life.  

To manage well, based on the nature of your environment, strike a balance between art and science to dynamically manage the schedule and expectations.  

Manage Expectations: Dynamic Process

A schedule is a dynamic representation of events over time.  The key word is dynamic.  The schedule when published is a snapshot as of a moment in time.  It is a model based on assumptions.    

Make sure you and all the stakeholders realize and remember that the schedule will not predict the future with complete accuracy.  You will not know when a project will be over until it is over.

Change, Risk and Time

Change and risk management are integral parts of dynamic scheduling. With that in mind, manage stakeholders’ expectations by pushing back against irrational deadlines, and keeping the schedule up to date, reflecting the effects of changes and risk. 

Risk management addresses what may occur, how likely and with what impact.   The schedule must consider obstacles as well as the events that can enhance the project’s probability of success.  Among those events are changes to any factor that influences the schedule – requirements, resources, effort and duration.  

Change management addresses the events that occur during the project that impact task durations, resources and scope.  Risk management considers all these events so the schedule will accommodate them with minimal change to the expected project end date.  As changes are encountered, the schedule must be managed to ensure that it is a realistic prediction of the actual outcome.

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Iterative Refinement

Iterative refinement manages uncertainty. Consider a project that relies on approval or other work by a department that is unable to or unwilling to provide an end date for its work.  For example, an overburdened legal department, faced with constant priority changes that is responsible for negotiating a contract that is on the critical path.  Until the contract is signed, work cannot begin and, therefore a calendar date specific schedule cannot be provided. 

When the schedule is initially created, there is an iterative refinement process that assesses the various scenarios that can occur during the life of the project and decides on a published project schedule.  As the project proceeds changes are assessed and scheduling continues.

Iterative refinement means that an initial draft or current schedule will be critically reviewed by stakeholders and changed to make it increasingly accurate. 

Skillful use of a project planning tool can make schedule refinement relatively easy since the tool, using dependency and resource availability data can change task start and end dates based on changes to estimates, resource availability and experienced schedule variances.   The easier it is to make changes to the schedule using planning tools, the more the planners can explore what-if scenarios to find an optimal schedule.

Negotiation and Uncertainty

Over the life of the project, schedule refinement involves negotiation of target dates, estimates, priorities and resource availability. 

While the science of scheduling can be tedious, it is straightforward.  A well-managed use of experience makes effort estimating and the setting of dependency relationships relatively easy. Without recorded history, estimates are subjective and the need for negotiation is increased.

Resource assignment is more complex. Resource availability involves resources assigned across multiple projects and between projects and operational activities, the negotiation can be subjective, contentious and require a portfolio management level decision maker.  To make things more difficult, many project environments do not have a comprehensive resource pool to use in scheduling multiple projects and operational activities.  When business operations are volatile and when project performers are multitasking, uncertainty about resource availability makes scheduling ever so much more dynamic and uncertain.

The Bottom-line: Manage Expectations 

The dynamic nature of projects must be understood by all stakeholders.  Experience does not support the expectation that a schedule will be stable for the life of any project. The schedule will change as the project progresses. Manage expectations to make all stakeholders accept that there will be schedule variance while giving them a realistic sense of most likely and less likely scenarios. 

Maintain a historical base for estimates and do your best to promote stable resource availability to make schedules more predictable.

Expectation management and negotiation are part of the art of scheduling.  The require the willingness to accept reality, the courage, emotional and social intelligence to push back using risk and change management when powerful stakeholders expect certainty or dictate project end dates.  Dynamic scheduling also requires the wisdom to know when to accept the reality of irrational expectations and to do your best to minimizes negative effects.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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