Take Control of Project Schedules

A Six Minute Read

Complaining about projects falling behind schedule is good sport for executives and sponsors, its popularity rivalled only by project managers providing excuses projectsof why their projects are off target.

Good project managers know how to prevent their initiatives from falling behind, and avoid persistent blamestorming.

Common scapegoats include unfriendly software, unyielding and/or uncaring scheduling departments, and lack of resources. With a little bit of legwork and focus on the fundamentals, a PM can overcome these issues.

Schedules are Built not Spontaneously Generated

A project schedule is more than dates on a Gantt chart. Those dates come from somewhere, and the best initiatives have a project-specific logic underpinning that schedule.


Before locking a schedule, a good PM understands the dependencies of the work involved. This goes beyond knowing, say, that a foundation must be poured first, or how long paint takes to dry. The project manager recognizes how each deliverable fits, Jenga-like, into the sequence. Good PMs ask, “What must be complete before this task can start?” and “Which tasks rely on this one?”. The PM also knows how long each task should take. Then – and only then – can the PM overlay this string of dependent tasks on an actual calendar. (Project software is much friendlier when this work is input first).

Project Calendar

Before sharing a “straw man” schedule (“We think we can hit these dates…”), good PMs look at actual calendars and determine when work can get done – and when it can’t. This can be complex – thanks to multiple staffs working multiple shifts across multiple contracts, in multiple time zones (and whose countries may celebrate multiple holidays). This seems so obvious, it’s astounding how many PMs ignore  it. “We didn’t know their plant was shut that week”, or “They only work one shift”, are not legitimate reasons for projects to fall behind.

Resource Calendar

Before finalizing the schedule, good PMs review that straw man with their resources – and oftentimes their resources’ managers. Either the resource is cool with the layout or not. If not, the PM can decide whether that specific resource is more important than the date: Then, the choice becomes replace the resource or re-negotiate participation (depending on the flexibility of the conflict). Either way, before the project kicks off, and a schedule is published, the PM and resources have agreed on what that schedule is. “Joanie wasn’t available when I scheduled her” is not a legitimate reason for a project to fall behind.

Advance Negotiations

Note we said “re-negotiate” participation: Before laying out “Dependencies”, good project managers discuss project participation with potential resources and their managers. This can be high-level and vague: “Hey, I may be tapping you for some help in mid-September; what’s your schedule like?” This informs both the Project Calendar, and, obviously, the Resource Calendar. The PM may discover that even the tentative schedule is unrealistic, and/or has time to make significant resourcing changes.

On large or complex projects, obviously, PMs don’t know each individual resource. But good project managers carefully select the “principal” resources for deliverables; these are the ones who provide subject matter expertise, build the teams under them, and share accountability for the project’s success.

Schedules Are Built on Resourcing Needs

Too often, people are assigned to a project because they are “available.” (Or because an executive thinks they should.) Good project managers take control of their resource pool and only assign work to those who can, well,  actually do it.

The PM ought to review the work breakdown structure and understand what’s required to achieve it. She does this before anyone is assigned – or approached about being assigned – to the project. Careful readers will (correctly) infer that, because principal accountability is assigned before schedules are written, this resource review is done before any dates are laid out as well.

The PM – and smart ones consult with experts – creates a Resourcing Index which lists the skills, knowledge, and abilities required to do the work. Not names, not titles, but actual attributes. (In other words, “Can sweat a pipe”, not “Plumber”.) Think of this as a “Bill of Materials” for people.

This becomes important in two ways – when selecting resources in the Initial and Advanced Negotiations, it opens more possibilities to get the work done. “Hey, I don’t need to wait for Joe on this,” the PM can say, “I just need someone who can sweat a pipe.”

This is also helpful if (rather, when) the schedule starts to slip – say, Joe calls in sick. Again, the PM (or the person who has primary accountability for that deliverable) can open the Resourcing Index and say, “Hey, we don’t need to wait for Joe on this… We just need someone here who can sweat a pipe.”

Estimated hours are included to ease in negotiations and set expectations with resources. Even for internal (“free”) resources, capturing effort and assigning a dollar value highlights the opportunity costs of the project!

The Completion Backward Principle

To pull this all together:

  • Good PMs, consulting SMEs, build a “Resourcing Index” that inventories the actual task-by-task needs of the project
  • Using the Resourcing Index, good PMs negotiate availability with individual potential Principal Resources
  • Using knowledge gained from building the Resourcing Index and Principal negotiations, good PMs lay out task-by-task Dependencies
  • Using the Dependencies, good PMs build a Straw Man project calendar with tentative dates
  • Using the Straw Man calendar, good PMs lock in schedules – dates, and resources

But, But… My Scheduler?

Project Managers lucky enough to have scheduling offices are frequently handed resources and schedules that are troublesome from the beginning. There are two ways to play it – be a victim, or be a Man of Action. Whine about the crappy schedules, and make excuses, or – go back and work these steps, alone or (better) in tandem with the schedulers.

Deeply understanding resources and schedules is a lot of work, and takes time. But that’s managing a project. The best project managers are expert delegators, and enlist help of SMEs and resources at every step along the way. Ignoring these activities – before “execution” phases begins – is a shirking of PM responsibility. At best, you become a “Project Coordinator”; at worst, you become unemployed.




Banner Photo – Curtis MacNewton