The Timeline Map

Arun Nithyanandam –

When you’re asked to plan a small project, the scope and required functionality are often very clear. However, large projects are often very nebulous and filled with unknowns, especially when you start the planning phase. You may not fully know the project’s true requirements and functionality. However, as the project manager, you will still be expected to estimate costs, establish milestones, and define deliverables.

Often, when a customer comes to you, you will hear the greatest clarity around the application’s ideal go-live date. This date could be aligned with the end of a financial quarter, a commitment to their senior management, a marketplace-timing need, or business drivers. The customer may even want to make a personal mark within the organization.

This mix of unknown motivations makes large-project estimation interesting. You’ll be facing many unknowns. How do you create a viable project plan? You could add buffers and padding to the project, or you might draw upon your previous experience. You could also just agree to the customer’s ideal date and hope everything goes smoothly. Let’s look at two smarter approaches that will position you and your client for success.

Start with Three Dates

Ask your customer the following three questions to come up with project timelines:
• Date A: What date do you want this project to go-live?
• Date B: What later date can you afford to go-live by?
• Date C: When will all hell break loose if you haven’t gone live?

The answers to these three questions will give you three different go-live dates—an ideal date, an acceptable date, and a crisis date. With that information, you will be able to build three different project plans and efforts estimates.

• The first date provides your go-live date if everything goes smoothly according to your plan.
• The second go-live date provides a 20% swing in the timeline.
• The last date provides a 35% – 40% swing.

Build Three Plans

Your customer might not be able to provide clear dates or worse-yet, your customer might just say “as soon as possible.” In that case, you can create three sets of project plans.
• Plan A: This will be the ideal-case plan. In this plan, everything happens smoothly and on-time. This plan will be similar to the Date A.
• Plan B. This plan will include a 20% swing. Things often don’t go perfectly according to plan. So, you will need to leave room in your plan to adapt to changes. You will discover realities that will take more effort than what was scoped initially.
• Plan C: This plan will accommodate a 40% swing.

You will end up with three plans that track the deliverables. When the first plan deadline is missed, you will end up somewhere around the second plan, and so on.

You can either build around three dates or three plans. However, in either case, if the swing becomes greater than 40%, you should be prepared to answer some difficult questions:

• Have the project requirements changed (scope change or scope creep)?
• Did the stakeholders change or were new stakeholders added?
• Did the stakeholders’ expectations and interests change?

Manage Expectations Early

Whichever technique you use, it’s important to share these three dates/plans with your customer during the planning phase. Customers understand that projects won’t always go smoothly, and they want to know you’re prepared to adapt to unknowns. It’s about building confidence. So, don’t make the mistake of planning Date/Plan A to your client. Take time to show them Dates/Plans B and C and get their buy-in.

From the start, you’ll build their confidence in your project management skills. You’ll show that you’re using your experience to think ahead.

During the project, if you have to shift to Dates/Plans B or C, your customer won’t be taken by surprise. The customer’s senior management will be happy that the project is still demonstrably on-track for Date/Plan B or C—which everyone (including senior management) agreed to at the beginning of the project.

About the Author

arun_nith_blog.jpgArun Nithyanandam is a Strategy and Management Consultant based in Silicon Valley. Arun has managed multiple multi-million dollar IT projects in US and Europe across verticals. His current focus areas are Enterprise Contract Management Systems (deploying Nextance proposal-to-revenue and source-to-savings solutions to help companies improve financial performance and lower risk) and Enterprise Content Management Systems. Arun works with CIGNEX Technologies, a provider of Open Source based enterprise content management solutions.

During his spare time (if any) Arun enjoys hiking and reading.

Arun is currently working on a book (co-authored with Bill Sherman) code named “Managing Multi-million dollar projects” to be published in 2008.

For the collection of all Arun’s articles, please visit Squidoo Lens Arun Says

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