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Those *#$(&! Deadlines

Dear Elizabeth:

I’m project managing 100 projects (seriously), and struggling. The main thing is deadlines – we have a fixed project deadline, but it’s largely in the control of our customers as we require information/feedback from them during the project.

How can I set a deadline so that I can see the original due date of the project, track how much time we’ve been actively waiting for a client to respond (so that inevitably when they ask “what’s taking so long” I can prove it’s the amount of time I’ve been waiting for them), and see how often we’ve had to shift the deadline and when? – Frazzled

Dear Frazzled:

100 projects! Good grief. When the responsibility for getting a task done is being passed among different groups, you can use workflows to manage the handoffs.

One of the best ways to do this is to offer your clients transparency over your project schedules. You can do this with online project management tools: Just set clients up as users with the permissions that are appropriate. Create tasks and name them explicitly, something like “Client review.” Then also add your client as a resource to the task to make it really visible. If you keep your schedule up to date you’ll be able to see when these tasks start and end, and work out the total waiting time that has been added to your plan as a result.

I would also schedule in follow-up time every week. You can either automate this with alerts around incomplete tasks (or your PM software might flag tasks that are at risk). But you can also block an hour in your calendar each week to follow up with clients for any outstanding tasks. Of course, you can do this in your planning tool if it allows for commenting.

If you’re not working with clients in a collaborative tool, then you can create templates to use for emails that communicate that the task needs input before moving forward. Plus, you can include a helpful “if you need any more information, just give me a call.” Normally I’d suggest calling each client individually but you can’t do that with 100 projects so the more you can copy and paste to save yourself time the better.

And to wrap this up, a few things to consider: How much notice do clients receive that you will be asking them for feedback? If the kinds of projects you do are relatively repetitive, you should be able to predict forward when you’ll need their input and give them warning. Can you create a calendar of important milestones when they’ll be receiving data from you so that they can anticipate and plan? Your clients might be more responsive if they know what’s expected of them in advance.

As for seeing how many times you have had to shift the deadline: Look into using baselines on your project schedule. Baseline reports are a huge help in working out when your dates changed, and they’ll help you see how often you had to make a change to reach your final milestones.

Every month, project management expert, Elizabeth Harrin, fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog. This selection is used with permission.


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2 Comments
  1. Frazzled, this sounds like the perfect time to learn simple schedule baseline & variance. In MS Project (desktop or other versions) there is built-in functionality to take a snapshot (baseline) of the agreed schedule dates and then see a report as time passes to understand what is drifting and by how much. Don’t overthink it. Use the webinars & info on this site to learn the nuts & bolts of doing this. Don’t worry about interim plans or trying to capture the ultimate level of precision with advanced maneuvers right off the bat. You will need to define predecessor tasks, so the lateness of X pushes out Y and it will be easy to see the impact of dates sliding. Sometimes clients will listen better to “Mr. Gantt” and the report than a person nagging them. You can approach the situation with facts. If you don’t approve X by end of the month, the rest of this whole workstream will be delayed by Y amount and run up extra costs or use up resource hours that were planned for other work. You can do it! Don’t try to do it on 100 projects at once until you feel sure about the process. If there is a schedule change order approved, then re-baseline the affected part of the plan. Let the built in reporting calculate & display for you.

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  2. This is an opportunity to discuss the concept of contingency with your client(s). Get them to agree to a nominal contingency of duration and add those contingency days to the schedule as a task starting on the project start date. Also identify in your schedule client turnaround times for decisions. Make sure you use predecessors and successors to define the critical path. Let’s say you have agreed to 10 days contingency and 3/4 into the project the client has blown through their allocated task duration by 3 days on the last checkpoint (for example). Take 3 of the 10 days from the contingency and add it to the checkpoint. If you go through all of the contingency, then you will have to let the client know that the project will not deliver as expected. Also, use the Deadline feature (Task Information Dialog, Advanced tab). A blown deadline automatically puts that task on the critical path.
    The key here, as in all of Project Management, is communications – communicate why you are doing what you are doing, then communicate during the process.

    Hope this helps.

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