Basic Tips for Building a Schedule
Building a credible project schedule can be challenging, even for experienced professionals. This essay explains a process I’ve refined and used with success for almost 30 years.
- Start with a well-defined project goal – There should be a clear written definition of the project that includes deliverables and success criteria before investing much time in planning. For extra credit, it should also include schedule and resource targets. That definition document should be under version control and may be amended as a consequence of your planning efforts. Still, it should exist, and everyone participating in planning should be familiar with it.
- Brainstorm tasks with a group of people that have the skills to do the work – The fact that Chuck, the designer, likes to read medical novels does not qualify him to take responsibility for defining the tasks needed for surgery. When you get into the brainstorming session and look at who is present, you should see all of the experience and knowledge required to complete the project – not necessarily all the people involved, but sufficient expertise to confidently identify >95% of the work. I like to brainstorm tasks on 3x3 sticky notes… large enough to capture notes and assumptions but small enough no one has a fit if they have to re-write it.
- Gather approximate task durations - Ask subject matter experts to spend 60 seconds with each task developing a credible guess at the task duration and writing it on the sticky notes. Assure the team they will have a penalty-free chance to change their minds later. The first hack at duration helps build the preliminary schedule; we can refine once we know when things are happening. Pro tip: if someone proposes a task with a duration of more than 2 weeks, ask (don’t demand) if they can think of a way to break it into smaller parts.
- Sequence the tasks – Put some butcher or flip chart paper on a wall, then on the left side, plop down a Start milestone. On the right side, add a Finish milestone. Now grab a pencil and built the task network by asking, “If I said ‘Go’ right now, which of these tasks could begin?” Those tasks go downstream of the start milestone. Repeat for each task in the chain, “Which tasks are waiting for the output from this one?”. Note: you may find tasks that can be combined are redundant or must be split. That’s ok. Just make sure the team members that identified the tasks are on board with the change.
- Build the preliminary schedule – Send the team to lunch and transcribe the tasks, durations, and dependencies into the project management software of your choice. If you think you see an error or omission, note it but don’t correct it until the team returns. You are modeling behavior that this is OUR plan, not YOUR plan.
- Revisit estimates and allocate resources – Revisit estimation of effort, duration and resources now that the team has had a chance to explore the project context more fully. Ask your team what the right team size to do the task efficiently would be and ask if they have someone in mind with the right skills to do the work. Capture names as an initial resource request.
- Look for resource issues – Most scheduling tools will help you identify when individual resources are overbooked. Look for resource overload and underload. Don’t fix them yet wait for optimization.
- Review plans. Rarely at this stage is the project “in bounds” in terms of schedule and resources. Our next step is to look for optimization opportunities, trade-offs among schedule scope, and resources to meet the project constraints. Your team will have context-specific suggestions, but here are some generics to get the process started:
- Compressing a schedule
- Review dependencies on the critical path – are any optional? Dependencies should reflect requirements, not preferences
- Review durations on the critical path – ask the estimator if additional resources (people or other) can be safely added to the task to decrease the time needed
- Can external dependencies be accelerated by increasing spending (for example: expediting shipping of parts).
- Addressing resource overload and shortfalls
- If resources are over-committed, can other resources be obtained who can perform the task?
- Can non-critical tasks be delayed to even out resource needs?
- If the budget is tight, are you buying something you could borrow, rent, or lease?
- Are you paying to build something you could buy?
- Consider trimming optional or non-essential requirements and looking at different approaches
- Is there a particular feature, function, or requirement that is causing schedule or resource pressure? Might it be eliminated or deferred?
- How might scope be reduced without undermining project goals?
- Are there other approaches to the problem that might reduce schedule, costs, or risks? (Buying something rather than building it, for example).
- Manage Risk – Work with the team to identify risks and look for ways to reduce the likelihood and impact of risks. Establish early warning systems for risks as appropriate.
- Review plans with the project sponsor – Whether or not you managed to meet the project objectives and constraints it is important to share what you have learned with the project’s sponsor(s) to support informed decision-making.
Bonus: If you capture 3-point estimates in step 6, you can use Monte Carlo Simulations or TriCoBi™ simulations to support your schedule optimization efforts in step 8 and risk identification and management in step 9. You will also have good visual aids to support your review with the sponsor in step 10.
For more information on TriCoBi simulations, check out Chrono™.