Project management would be so easy if we could create a plan and simply follow it. Dates would be hit because we’d considered every risk, we had the correct number and type of resources, and the budget was unlimited.
Ever had a project like this? Me, neither. They’re as rare as a neon Pegasus.
Those of you new to project management may be looking at your more senior colleagues and wondering when you’ll be able to glide through a project like they do.
But the reality is, projects never get easier. With experience simply comes the ability to handle them with more grace (hopefully).
One of the toughest parts of project management is selecting a Go Live date and sticking to it.
When we start a project, the first thing management wants to know is “When will you be done?” Unless you really luck out with your execs, you’ll be required to throw out an estimated Launch date…which tends to stick in everyone’s mind, even though you made it before the basics are known—such as requirements and resources!
I get it, some projects have a date that can’t be missed for a very good reason—a divestiture is final, a service contract is up, or a major advertising campaign is counting on it.
But many times, when you do go Live is…a bit arbitrary.
As you move through your project, you may find hitting your chosen Launch date is going to be a stretch. You need to determine whether to drive super hard to make the date or push it out.
It’s not an easy decision. It comes down to the impact on your people, company culture, finances, risk tolerance, and stakeholder patience.
When faced with this situation, I first take a look at what exactly is being launched. Does any part of it need to hit a particular date? If so, what would happen if we missed it? If a month delay is fine, but 2 months is bad, I take that into consideration.
What about my team? Are they already maxed out? Am I just pouring more water into an already overflowing bucket? How great is the client’s pain (end users, business sponsor, other stakeholders)? Can they hold on for a little while longer or would that be devastating?
If we push out the date now, what’s the likelihood we’ll need to push it out again? One time may be tolerated, but pushing it out over and over erodes trust in you, your team, the project, and whatever it is you’re rolling out.
I always make sure to consider a third option: phased roll-out. This works in many organizations. If it’s an option where you are, consider whether launching pieces of your project over time will work. As an example, what about launching during a slow period so you can handle the volume of calls if something goes wrong. Or go Live with the base process and then pull in the less frequently used pieces later. You could also opt to open up into different geographical regions at different times (vs. a “big bang” approach).
When determining whether a phased launch will work, think through any additional communication needs. You’ll need answers when someone isn’t part of the initial Launch, and additional support if only part of the process is Live. Do you have resource time allocated to this?
So now you’ve done the research and you have a good idea of the impact of each option: strive for the original date, push out the date, or switch to a phased roll-out. It’s time to ask:
Who is responsible for making this decision?
You can make your recommendations and help work through the pros & cons, but the decision is up to the Sponsors or your Executive Committee.
How do you help ensure they’re making the “right” decision? Nothing fancy, nothing magic, just good, old-fashioned communication.
- Keep your execs informed throughout the project. Remind them that the timeline is a draft until it’s finalized. This is a great place for a visual. You likely have an update slide of some sort. A bold “DRAFT” text box is simple but effective, as are non-specific date formats (i.e. “Feb” for a milestone).
- Be transparent about the risks. This doesn’t mean complain every time you meet. But management needs to—wants to—know the risks so they can help mitigate them. (And, of course, mitigating them helps you hit the date!)
- Present the options with all the pros and cons of each. Even if they’re obvious, include them. It’s much easier to discuss if it’s all visible. And what’s obvious to you may not be to them—it’s a matter of perspective.
- Always treat your executives as if they’re important and have valuable insight…because they do. No matter how “in control” of our project we are, our point of view is narrow and deep. Theirs may be shallow, but it’s broad! They understand what’s going on in other parts of the company. They’ve been in strategy meetings and talk with their peers.
I’ve found that this level of communication helps my sponsors feel like part of the solution, not just a gatekeeper. If they have a personal connection, they’ll do whatever they can to make the project successful, whether it’s pushing out the date, bringing in resources, cutting scope, staging the roll-out, etc.
We can’t always avoid pushing the date. But coming up with a solution together gives us the best chance of success.
And speaking of success, no matter what happens with the Launch date, if you’re working with your sponsors all the way through, your reputation can still grow. You won’t be remembered as “that PM whose project didn’t go Live on time.” You’ll be recommended as “the PM who is always on top of things, no matter how challenging the project gets.”