My Dirty Little Secret of Project Management!

Why don’t more project managers sound an alarm when they’re going to blow past their deadlines? Because most of them have no earthly idea when they’ll finish the job. They don’t even think it’s possible to know. Too many variables. Too much that’s out of their control. That’s the dirty little secret of project management. As the lead developer on one big software project put it: “Everybody knows the schedule is a joke, and we pay no attention to it. It will be done when it’s done.”

It’s funny, though. Big, successful companies that manage huge projects like highways and dams and office parks have to deal with many more variables than a software development team. Yet they usually know how far along they are at any given time, and they keep their customers in the loop. That’s how they get to be big, successful companies.

Granted, they have fancy project management software to help them stay on top of the schedule. But a good project management system — one that can tell you exactly where you are in the project, when it’s likely to be done, and by how much you will overshoot or undershoot your budget — doesn’t need expensive software. The fact is, your system can be very simple as long as it helps you do the following:

Track key variables

Keep a close eye not just on milestones but also on factors that have an impact on profitability. The biggest variable to watch? Labor hours compared with budget, which gives you a pretty good idea of your percent complete at any given time. You’ll also want to track materials costs, change orders, and your subcontractors’ progress. Trouble in any of those areas can throw a project out of whack quickly, so it’s important to track them on a weekly basis.

Keep your team informed

I recommend regular weekly meetings, with the key numbers posted on a whiteboard or computer desktops so that everybody can see them. With the numbers up there, potential trouble spots surface quickly. A few years ago, I learned that one of our project managers started building extra time into the schedule. If I had let that continue, it would have messed up our profit projections for his projects. Team members brought the issue to my attention after the first weekly meeting — they could see that the numbers on the board didn’t square with the agreed-upon timetable.

Update your stakeholders and customers

All customers want their jobs finished on time and on budget — or preferably faster and cheaper. But if they can’t have that, and sometimes they can’t, what they really want is to be kept informed along the way. (Ditto for senior managers — they don’t like surprises, either.) Share bad news as well as good so they’re never outraged by enormous last-minute changes.

Here’s an example: We were building a small extension to an existing data center. This was just one piece of a major upgrade with a very aggressive schedule and dozens of contractors in the mix. As we got deep into our project, we ran into several issues — big (and unanticipated) coordination snags on the schedule, changes in the specs for room temperature, and others. We knew these issues would delay the final delivery by six weeks. So we immediately notified the customer and adjusted our delivery dates months ahead of time. By the end of the project, we were behind by those six weeks. But because we had kept the customer in the loop every step of the way, we were on time as far as he was concerned. We even got an award at the end for on-time performance. The moral we took away from this? If your customer doesn’t think you’re late, then you’re not late. If you need to change the schedule, do it as early as possible and give your customer an immediate heads-up so he can adjust his expectations.

I am not saying project management is easy. But if you have a good system, you can keep track of the difficulties and keep your customer informed and happy — even if you’re six weeks late.