There is nothing new in the fact that timelines established for the projects are rarely met. Actually, we got so used to this part of workplace reality that we consider it a problem only in the most outrageous cases – when the project’s cost exceeded every budgeting expectation or when it outlived its usefulness by becoming irrelevant.
Is there a way to improve this situation? Before we are able to answer this question, we need to understand what prevents us from following the schedule in the first place.
1. Unrealistic expectations
This is our nature – we always hope for the best. Our primary fear of negative outcome makes us try and deny the possibility of its actualization by tipping the scale towards optimistic predictions. No one will deny the benefit of convincing ourselves that “everything will be OK”, but when we make unrealistic expectations, the chances that the situation will not turn out OK grow exponentially.
Unrealistic expectations cause us to assign shorter timelines than actually needed for successful completion of tasks, because we assume that friction would be minimal. However, experience teaches us that it’s never the case – friction always tends to be significant because any attempt to produce something involves friction. It comes in many forms: hardware malfunction, human error, fund depletion etc., but it’s always there, so you need to account for it.
A basic strategy is to naturally presume that something will necessarily go wrong and plan accordingly. Proper Risk Management is not easy, but it’s your best friend when you want to create realistic schedules. Remember that delay is not always caused by one serious problem, as it can simply accumulate as a sum of previous small delays, resulting from unrealistic assignments.
2. Previous delays
Our tendency to focus on what’s in front of us frequently causes us to forget about what happened just beforehand. When trying to push the completion of a certain task because deadline is approaching, we may neglect the information about the status of other tasks related to the same project.
If the project is divided into stages, a delay in a previous stage will naturally hinder the work on the following one. However, the problem may increase tenfold, when the more advanced stage has already begun, but a problem was discovered on the previous level. In this situation you’ll have to face a very uncomforting decision: whether to stop any advanced activity until the basic problems are resolved or try and coordinate the simultaneous advance on both levels, when every chunk of finished material is passed to the next stage as soon as its’ ready. Regretfully, the nature of many projects does not allow division into chunks, which means that all schedules will have to be completely redrawn.
A strategy you should abstain from pursuing is completely ignoring the information about previous delays as well as any other useful information.
3. Ignoring important information
In addition to data about the actual adherence to timelines, there are many other important pieces of information that should not be ignored.
For example, the departments where the risk for delays is the highest may notify us on time that they lack resources, but as this is one of the most frequent complaints and the most frequent excuse for underachievement, we may disregard the message completely. We may also be notified informally by the Testing Department that there is a high chance that the product could be returned for repairs even before the full testing cycle is finished. A smart manager will try and modify his schedules immediately the moment he gets hold of this information, freeing resources in advance in order to shorten the cycle as much as possible.
Of course, getting hold of such crucial information requires communication skills, both on the sending and the receiving ends.
4. Lack of communication
The problem in many cases is that the information that could have helped prevent or at least reduce delays is never passed to whom needs it the most. This lack of communication can persist both between the hierarchical levels (manager withholding important information from employees/employees being afraid to bear the bad news upwards) and laterally (between members of the same departments or between the departments).
Of course, when the delays are already upon you, it’s too late to improve communication, however there are many successful strategies of doing it as a preventive measure. Just remember that if no one will tell that there is a problem – how would you know? Also, you will need your communication channels in order to talk to your people about dealing with the delay, to other managers about possible assistance and to the higher management about more resources.
One way or another, solving these four issues may help you to both prevent delays from happening altogether as well as when they have already become a problem.