Successful project delivery depends directly on the project manager’s ability to build an executable project plan that goes down to the requisite detail.

According to the PMBOK® (Project Management Body of Knowledge, issued by the Project Management Institute) definition, the project plan defines how the project is executed, monitored, controlled and closed. A key element of the project plan is the project schedule.

Believe it or not, there are still many organisations that think that a project schedule is little more than a sophisticated list, which can be set up on an Excel spreadsheet. While a spreadsheet can certainly list and detail the deliverables, it cannot calculate the impact of delays, extensions and changes along the way.

Undoubtedly, one of the key components of successful project management is the delivery of agreed outcomes, within the agreed time and cost. To achieve consistency, it’s vital to figure in the effect of delays, extensions or changes to the project schedule because even seemingly minor adjustments can have a domino effect, impacting on one or more deliverables and even the project’s ultimate outcome.

Using the appropriate project management software puts the project manager (PM) in the driving seat, providing a bird’s eye view of the schedule every step of the way, even as delays, extensions or changes come into play, which allows the PM to adapt and adjust the project schedule accordingly.

But, even with the right software in place, there are some key pitfalls to avoid when it comes to putting a project schedule in place:

  1. The project team – not the PM – must define the activities required to deliver a successful outcome. The PM doesn’t need to be an expert on what is being delivered by the project because a good PM will use subject matter experts on the team to build a comprehensive project schedule. However, it is helpful if the PM understands the subject matter to enable him to ask the right questions during the planning process.
  2. Wherever possible, progressive elaboration / task decomposition must continue breaking down assignments to the point where individual responsibility can be identified. When tasks have resources assigned down to individual level there is no confusion as to who is accountable.
  3. Keep up the project’s tempo with regular progress meetings and, as a rule of thumb, limit activity duration to a maximum of five days. If necessary, activities can be broken down into sections, with appropriate review points included along the way.
  4. Try to link all tasks to the project’s end date – either directly or via other tasks – otherwise progress cannot be properly tracked and something can get out of hand without the PM even knowing.
  5. All tasks must have a baseline – in other words, the agreed duration and cost – before the task is started.
  6. The project schedule must include the full scope of activities required to deliver the project including reviews, approvals and meetings.

In Alice in Wonderland, when Alice asks the Cheshire cat which way she ought to go, even though she doesn’t much care where she gets to, he sagely replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”.

Project management’s a lot like that: without an effective project schedule in place you probably won’t be heading in the right direction. Get the project schedule right and you’ve taken the first – and most important step – to a successful project.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.

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