Project management is predicated on a timeline. What will be done, when – this is the tongue in cheek definition of project management. If there’s no project schedule, you aren’t managing a project – you’re overlooking a dream.
If so, why is it that much of the time, a project schedule is never kept to?
Take the critical chain, as an example. Critical chain management theory mitigates project overruns and delays. At least it is supposed to. Somehow, the delays just creep in from somewhere else. Harry the project manager calculates the critical chain: it runs from sourcing to manufacturing, and from there to logistics. Everyone is excited – we know what to look out for, let’s get started! Skip ahead three weeks, and Karen from marketing botches obtaining the materials for the launch. Or Jared from software development isn’t ready with that key feature. It turns out sourcing was simple, but we still can’t get to manufacturing because of Jared. Or we can’t start shipping (logistics) thanks to Karen. The critical chain is often only identifiable after the fact…
There’s so much emphasis placed on data-based project management. This is a positive development. Somehow, though, when it comes to the most basic element of project management, timing the project schedule remains more prophecy than prediction.
The Holy Grail: An Accurate Project Schedule
An accurate project schedule remains similar to the Holy Grail. Maybe Indiana Jones can find it, but the rest of us are still looking. It might just be that we are all looking in the wrong place. Maybe the problem is that the project schedule is never supposed to be accurate.
The project schedule is never supposed to be accurate.
The point of a project schedule is to create an element of prediction to what is otherwise a prophecy. And what people think is prophecy, and what is prediction, is actually the opposite of what is true.
Naseem Taleb has made famous the Black Swan fallacy of predictive models. The Black Swan is the unknown, unknowable factor that crashes down on a system or prediction and wipes it out. And there’s no real way to plan for it, because there is never, ever a way to know what it is to plan for it.
Prediction and Prophecy
When it comes to project management, the more a prediction is meant to be taken as fact, the more problematic it actually is! You are elevating a prediction to the level of prophecy. You are telling the future. And you can’t. This isn’t prediction, this is prophecy.
A proper project schedule does not try to tell the future. It tries to predict it – and a better project schedule allows for enough slack and alternative routes to account for the unknown. In other words, project planning and contingency planning are two sides of the same coin.
Project planning and contingency planning are two sides of the same coin.
Prediction is how we schedule a project effectively. Never let a prediction become a prophecy! Build in buffers. Plot multiple paths forward. Be ready to adapt, because you don’t know what the problem coming your way is.