“Dear Elizabeth: I am working with a group of very knowledgeable subject matter experts. They have 15-20+ years of experience in the field, many of those years in our company. We cannot deliver our technology project without them. They are experts in the field, but they are really bad at forecasting time, work effort, and even identifying the tasks that need to be completed. The more I ask them to consider what needs to be done, the more they push back, saying that on past projects they were made to adhere to impossible deadlines. But without any guidance from them about how long things will take, we are at risk of my management team deciding on a delivery date for us. How can I get them to help me put together a project schedule?”
I understand why people who have been burned in the past are reluctant to commit to project delivery dates, but you can’t plan a project without some idea of how long things will take.
Let’s look at some practical things you can do to create a project schedule to share with your management team.
1. Use past projects
It sounds like getting information out of these team members is going to be a challenge, so why start from nothing? If they are experts in their field, they are likely to have contributed to many projects in the past. Call up those project schedules and look at what activities they were responsible for. That could be the starting list for this technology project.
Use the task list from an old project as the starting point for a discussion about today’s work. Are the tasks the same? What needs to be different? Did you manage to deliver to these timescales last time or should we allow more time? Frame the conversation as being about learning from past experiences to improve project performance this time around. If they’ve been in the company for a long time, they should have experiences and historical information to share.
Sometimes people are anxious when they are looking at a blank piece of paper – although that’s often a response to being new in post and not exactly sure what to do. Part of me thinks that your colleagues simply don’t want to be held accountable, and we’ll come on to that.
2. Schedule the uncertainty
One of the challenges you are facing is that they don’t want to commit to dates, and you need dates. So let’s be pragmatic and factor their uncertainty into your schedule.
We can do that with probable start and finish dates, which gives us a range of time during which the task will be completed. There isn’t a fixed start and end date, but there is a window of time for the work to be done. You can demonstrate this on a Gantt chart as well.
This approach to scheduling gives you ranges rather than precise dates and is going to make them feel more comfortable because they won’t feel pinned down.
Where the uncertainty comes from doing something brand new that hasn’t been done before, then it often is impossible to estimate with any sense of accuracy. However, you can record that in the risk log and allow contingency time (and funds) to address that issue if it happens.
3. Use priority-based scheduling
If your software allows it (LiquidPlanner does), go for priority-based scheduling. Let them come up with the list of tasks, and then together work out the relative priority of each one. You can still enter in dependencies where these are clear, but where they are unable (or unwilling) to give you information, let the software help you work out what should be done in which order.
They’ll still need to review the schedule with you, though, so they feel they have ownership of the outcome. No one likes to be told what to do by a PDF of tasks, so try to make the scheduling effort a collective one.
4. Help them estimate
Be honest. Explain what you said in your email to me: that management will impose a project deadline if the team is unable to come up with a realistic and justifiable project schedule.
Their lack of action is going to end up with them being in exactly the same situation as the issue they are worried about – in other words, they are going to be held accountable to dates they did not agree to.
If using their professional judgment isn’t possible for whatever reason, there are a range of different estimating techniques they can use instead. Talk to them about the options and what estimating approach is going to work best for the task. Then support them to use the tool so they can estimate effectively.
They may find this stuff genuinely difficult, in which case spending time with you or an estimating professional, or even the project coordinator who can talk them through it, might be all that’s needed. Can you assign a junior project manager to support them with the estimating, planning and scheduling work so they can focus on their areas of technical expertise?
Do they realize that part of their job as an expert contributor to a project is to be able to identify tasks and prepare a plan and schedule for their components? They have experienced professionals and should be able to take responsibility for their own To-Do list and project work.
As they aren’t, they aren’t fulfilling the role that the organization expects of them. Time for performance management, I think!
I would talk to them and explain that you are surprised that it is taking so much effort on their behalf and on yours to get to a point where something that is their area of expertise can be adequately scheduled, given their experience. It’s not simply to do with being burned in the past because an alternative reaction to that would be to want to get involved with the scheduling so it doesn’t happen again.
They are choosing to not engage, and you will constantly struggle with that attitude on this project. They know they are experts and you can’t run the project without them, so that gives them the opportunity to make you meet their demands and expectations.
You don’t have to do that. You can opt-out of the games and politics. Escalate their behavior to their managers. Outsource the work because it’s clear the internal team doesn’t have the ability to do what is required of them.
These are ‘nuclear’ options, but too often I think project managers put up with colleagues who demonstrate lazy and unprofessional behavior because they are ‘experts’ and the project needs them. No one is indispensable.
A workable, reliable project schedule is important for any project – even if that includes estimates as ranges and plenty of contingency to manage task priority and uncertainty. As information becomes known, you can tighten up the plan, but you do need something to start from.
Be open about the challenges their lack of focus is presenting to you, and work with them to facilitate the production of a schedule you can all agree on.
Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.