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Tips to Tame Troublemaker Schedules

I am one of those people who packs for a trip the night before. And, while I may look to see what’s on offer at my destination, I don’t spend too much time planning things out. I like to be inspired and surprised, and delight in what unfolds. Perhaps more importantly, I like to minimize expectations.

It may seem ironic then that my chosen professional path and area of expertise is project management. Eight hours each day I focus on plans, schedules, and setting and exceeding expectations. I have always possessed skills in managing details and directing activities to a desired end. In fact, I think my take-it-as-it-comes personality trait is helpful because projects are full of timeline adjustments and shifting expectations.

Schedules set expectations

Schedules are early and critical documents that serve as the project team’s road map. They help project managers track progress and can also serve as an alert to highlight impending risks.

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Once the schedule is laid out and shared with client project stakeholders, expectations are set and the pressure of associated deadlines is created. Yet, the reality is, schedules are living documents. They’re intended to change. If you think through all your past project experience, how often do schedules work out exactly as planned? Stuff happens. Stakeholders request changes, reviews lead to discoveries, misses happen. When these things pop up, the schedule is adjusted.

Four types of troublemaking schedules

Over the years, I have noticed a pattern: Whether a project plays out to plan is directly related to the type of schedule defined at the project start. From time to time, I do manage projects that click along exactly as expected. Yet, the schedule types I encounter fall into the following four categories: 

  • The overly aggressive schedule (the impossible dream)
  • The extended, prolonged schedule (the never-ending project)
  • The “we can’t be scheduled” schedule (the inability to corral stakeholders and SMEs)
  • Or the absence of a schedule (deliverables become evolving moving targets resulting in meandering confusion)

Each type of schedule represents a business driver that, in large part, the client controls, and therefore, the cause often exists outside my realm of influence. Yet, recognizing the schedule type early on can help me devise methods for how to better manage to the type, which simplifies scheduling and reduces schedule-related stress.

Here are my thoughts on how to tame each type of troublemaking schedule and create a scheduling “Zen place.”

1: The overly aggressive schedule

At first glance, the aggressive schedule may feel like the type of project that inspires the most panic. Yet, working at an accelerated pace provides both structure and the ability to enforce deadlines proactively. If the client demands an accelerated schedule it usually means that they have a business driver tied to a specific date. The client team is therefore going to be involved, be aware of their review times, and in general, be active partners. To me, an accelerated schedule is a great place to start.

What can you do?

  1. Draft a lean initial schedule: Create a lean first draft of the schedule that allows your team the time to effectively complete tasks. One solution might be to overlap tasks that can either take place simultaneously or only need a day or two lead time before the next effort starts.
  2. Be sure to share the speed: Client’s review times are also lean, perhaps 3 days for early, more intensive reviews and then later one-day turn arounds for verification cycles.
  3. Review and highlight key accelerated points: Walk through the draft schedule on a call with stakeholders and SMEs. Explain the importance of each cycle and the desired outcomes. Be sure to discuss the aggressiveness of the timeline with the client, check their comfort level, and recognize review times need to be realistic to have a chance of being met.
  4. Be proactive: At each weekly meeting, talk about next steps through the next two to three weeks. Make sure everyone knows when his or her key points of input or review are so the right people are lined up to participate.

2: The extended, prolonged schedule

The extended schedule is usually not planned. In most cases, the initial schedule may have been realistic, been moderately paced, and included some wiggle room as appropriate. For us at Allen Interactions, the extended schedule is almost always a result of a change of circumstance with our client. Sometimes a holiday slows us down, and it’s tough to pick up the pace again. Other times a key person on the review team leaves, and naming a replacement is delayed. We have even experienced a federal government shut down that put a freeze on all government-contract jobs.  

What can you do?

  1. Communicate regularly. If the cause of the extension is a holiday or a leave of absence we can plan for, the simplest option is to make room in the schedule and plan for weekly or biweekly touch points during the hiatus. The touch points are quick and don’t require much forethought or planning. Yet, by touching base regularly, you can get a better sense of what is happening with the stakeholders and then can better plan your time and resources.
  2. Communicate the budget impact of extended schedules. Recognize that although design, development and media may have halted temporarily, maintaining the relationship does require some time on a weekly basis.
  3. Be transparent about your team’s readiness. Indicate when your team will be ready to respond, and find a way to say you may need a few days to free up the relevant resources and dig into the project specifics again. While we aim to make every partner feel they are the only partner we work with, we are a business as well.

3: The “we can’t be scheduled” schedule

While we work with the client team to agree on a well-planned schedule from the outset, sometimes approving stakeholders are not part of the weekly client team and therefore do not recognize our deadlines as real. Sometimes the most a project manager can do is be as responsive as possible. It is in everyone’s best interest to wrap things up quickly, as time always equates to money. In most cases, I resort to the tips described above for the never-ending-project schedule:

  1. Keep the scheduled weekly touch points and send regular status updates.
  2. Recognize that maintaining the relationship requires effort weekly. Communicate the budget impact of this point on an as-needed basis.
  3. Be transparent about your team’s readiness. It may take a couple of days to free up resources and then a bit more time for the team to dive back into project details.

4: The absence of a schedule

It may seem that the absence of a schedule would be nirvana for a project manager. One might imagine the creative team can do what it wants when it wants. Yet, I find the no-schedule projects the toughest to manage.

Perhaps the organization you’re working with is large and wields a good deal of power and fiscal resources. They pay a high hourly rate and because of that rate, they expect the creative team to be on call as needed, when needed. Deliverables are not clear or multiply as the client team reviews content and media. Or perhaps the client-provided source information turns out to be inaccurate or incomplete. New or additional source information requires unanticipated analysis and re-scripting and expands the project scope. This expansion results in media revisions and pushes the development schedule out. Continued direction changes throughout the development process create other sidesteps from what the plan had designated. You may wonder, is it worth planning a schedule when you can’t predict what changes will come next?

What can you do?

  • Recognize you are not the driver: As project managers, we like to direct timelines and next steps, so it can be difficult to recognize in this case the project manager is in a responsive role.
  • Provide clear deadlines: Continue to provide clear deadlines, particularly for review cycles. Provide explanations when timelines shift because of increased scope or change of project direction.
  • Communicate regularly: It is critical to keep communication channels open both between you and the client but also within your internal team.
  • Protect your team’s process: We can all find ourselves in that position of jumping to respond to seemingly immediate and urgent needs from your stakeholders. Don’t forget that you and your creative team have processes that work. Once you have an action item, sketch out a workable mini-schedule that allows your team to do its best work for that one deliverable.
  • Watch for project and/or scope expansion: Twists and turns often require additional funds. Keep in close contact with your creative team so you know when new requests will add time. Be sure to notify your client partner that expansions in time or content require additional time and money.
  • Remind your stakeholders about original project goals: Be willing to ask questions to clarify new direction or feedback and, if needed, push back if feedback takes you further away from the original goals of the project. It may be that stakeholders and SMEs aren’t aware that their feedback is taking them away from project goals.
  • Balance quality and timeline: Recognize this type of project requires increased effort to ensure both quality and timelines are met. When the creative team is out of its comfort zone, it is easy to succumb to stakeholder requests and forget that you are the expert and have good recommendations to make.

Find the right scheduling tool

We use SmartSheets to create our schedules. The beauty of this software is that it allows the schedule to be a living document that reflects inevitable timing changes and automatically pushes out the schedule to accommodate delays.

Using a software that allows for the “living schedule” changed the way I think about schedules in two ways.

One, I particularly appreciate that the default when inputting a delay is simply to push out the remaining tasks the same number of days as the delay itself. Of course, sometimes, a one-to-one delay is not possible. Sometimes resources that were planned to work on x project this week are already scheduled to work on y project next week. So, if the project delays a week, the work cannot necessarily be made up the following week. But knowing that the default is a one-to-one push has released a lot of the pressure I placed on myself to maintain firm delivery dates and cut the creative team’s time to make up the difference.

And two, because drafting a schedule is quick, I have more mental energy to identify from the beginning what type of schedule this project will be working under. Being aware of the constraints from the outset helps guide my draft schedule and how I interpret the schedule as the project progresses.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my quest to become a master schedule tamer is to appreciate how the project plays out - the ride itself - and not stress about the unknown adventures and challenges that may lay ahead.