A technology project manager has many moving parts and players to coordinate. An experienced project manager knows what to anticipate and how to keep a project on schedule. But an unexperienced internal project manager could struggle—especially since they’re juggling their project responsibilities along with their regular job.
Once you get behind schedule, it’s not always easy to catch up:
- You could miss the window when staff is available for meetings and other tasks. Before long, their time is committed to a legislative, conference, or board meeting cycle—and you’re stuck waiting.
- You can’t deliver the data you promised the vendor by the mutually established deadline. By the time you do deliver the data, the vendor’s implementation team is busy working with another client.
- As deadlines are missed and progress delayed, the launch date you promised the board is no longer a reality.
Shorten Your Project Management Learning Curve to Avoid Stretching Your Timeline
We’re here to help with some experienced advice on how to avoid getting behind schedule and missing deadlines.
Find out what you—the project manager—are really in for.
You can’t create a realistic project timeline if you don’t know what you’re getting into. If no one on your team has experience working on a project of this type, you need to talk to people who have.
Start with your vendor, but don’t automatically accept their timeline as your own. Vendors typically allocate time in their timeline for client responsibilities; however, their timeline may not include everything you need to do, nor the amount of time that is realistic for your organization to do them.
Talk to someone at an organization that undertook a similar project with the vendor. You can learn from their experience, identify any tasks you haven’t included in your timeline, and find out which tasks may take longer than anticipated.
Don’t cave in to pressure to squeeze the timeline.
Your vendor has been through this type of project numerous times and is likely comfortable with a quick implementation. Naturally, they’ll want to get through your project quickly so their team can move on to the next one on their list. But this is uncharted territory for your organization. Before embarking on the project, go through the timeline step-by-step with your vendor to identify and understand the tasks requiring your organization’s resources.
Let’s say their timeline only allows two weeks for your staff to complete Task X. Will it really only take two weeks? What might hinder your progress? Add a cushion to their initial estimate. You should make allowances for staff absences, staff turnover, and other delays due to staff not being as responsive, diligent, or available as anticipated.
Make sure your vendor adjusts their timeline to take into account the time required for your staff’s responsibilities and activities, even if it means extending your launch or go-live date.
Never start with a go-live date and then back-fill the required project activities—that’s a sure-fire way to squeeze your timeline. Unless there is a significant buffer, a backward-pass approach to the timeline with little or no wiggle room sets the stage for failure from the start.
Add a buffer to your projected go-live date as a cushion against missed deadlines and unavoidable project extensions. And, always, always, always, build in more time than you think you’ll need for data migration and user acceptance testing.
It’s never too early to start work on your data. Establish from the start how much data to migrate and how far back to go in time. Your vendor can help you make those decisions based on industry best practices.
Allocate enough staff time to project tasks.
Once you’ve identified project deliverables and tasks, identify the ones that will demand heavy resources from your association, for example:
- Discovery meetings
- Review periods for each of the vendors’ deliverables
- Data inventory, audit, and migration
- Integration meetings
- User acceptance testing
- User training
- Regularly scheduled project meetings throughout the implementation cycle
Identify the staff resources responsible for each activity, obtain the necessary approvals, and block their calendars. Be sure to account for and work around existing timeline constraints, for example, association activities and events already on the calendar that draw heavily on staff resources.
The support of the project’s executive sponsor becomes critical when scheduling staff for project work. Deadlines will be missed if staff aren’t made available to work on project tasks. The sponsor can help department heads understand that they won’t be able to expect the same level of performance from staff who are dedicating substantial time to the project. The executive sponsor can also expedite the offloading of existing responsibilities to other staff, or hiring temporary staff to help shoulder the workload.
Have a plan for when things don’t go as planned.
As the project unfolds, regularly assess if you’re meeting deadlines or if you need to adjust the timeline. If you anticipate falling behind the original timeline, let people know immediately, particularly the executive sponsor and key stakeholders. Communicate early and often.
If you know you’re so far behind the timeline that you’re not going to meet your go-live date, you have a few options.
- Cut the project’s scope now and plan for a Phase 2. Talk to the vendor about options for saving time now by putting something off until later. See if you can deliver 75% of the project now and get an extension for the remaining 25%.
- If that’s not feasible, do you have more staff resources to put on the project? Will that make a difference? Find out if something else can be put on hold so more staff time can be made available for your project.
- Sometimes, the only option is to push the go-live date out. Someone is bound to be displeased, but the earlier you tell them, the better.
When you’re attempting DIY project management, you can avoid ugly surprises and unnecessary stress by developing a realistic and comprehensive timeline. Talk to others who have taken on similar projects so you know what lies ahead. Build in enough time to allow for thoughtful work and provide a buffer for unforeseen complications.