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Friday, May 9, 2014

May Your Projects Never Be Late Again: Secrets from a Road Trip

[Also available as a podcast]

How do you make sure your projects complete on time? When you set a deadline, you are supposed communicate it to everyone, right? Then, presumably,the entire team will work towards that date, vendor and client alike, to make it happen.

That is usually what happens on most projects - you may be a little late on some target dates, a little early on others, but generally all of you are working towards the same dates, and hopefully the same priorities.

But what about when it doesn't work out, and deadlines are missed repeatedly?

Certainly you can apply contract penalties to a vendor, but that does not always help to achieve the desired effect of getting finished on time.

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  What do you do if it seems like part of your own team is disregarding your schedule? What if they seem to have a different sense of timing altogether, no matter how clearly you communicate the priorities and schedule?

This can be particularly problematic as you near the end of the project, when there is still a lot left to get wrapped up. People may be getting tired and losing focus - but you need to keep them delivering, right to the end. 

Tempers may flare, relationships can suffer, and you can end up with an even bigger mess on your hands if you are not careful, with little to show for your project as you near that all-important deadline. All the while, the clock is still ticking.

A family friend was plagued with this problem for many years - until he figured out the secret. He not only found out a way to keep a very important chronologically-challenged team member/stakeholder happy, but he also managed to bring things back on schedule, time and time again.

So how did he do it?

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Time, they say - is relative. This is particularly true when you are on holiday, and especially so when you take a road trip to see family and friends. The clock seems to have its own independent pace, or at least you don't care much about it until it is time to leave. Then, the clock suddenly grabs your attention again and you have that familiar feeling of pressure - of time weighing down on you.

The problem is - this time pressure often only seems to be affecting you. The rest of the team are still in holiday mode, clocks switched off and hidden from sight. Getting there may have been half the fun - but the going home part may not seem that fun at all. So why should they think about it?

However, you still need to get them moving; it's time to go, real life beckons - and you have no choice but to get them re-focused and prepare them for the last leg of the Road Trip

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There is a lot to do and not much time, so we will spell it out as we go. Let's get started!

For our R.O.A.D.T.R.I.P, we need to consider the following: 


noun - a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other's feelings or ideas and communicate well.

When you start out on your project or on your journey, you need to have a common vision and purpose. Simply put, you need to communicate and understand where you are all trying to go and what you are planning to achieve. If one of you heads out the back door instead of getting into the car, you have a problem before you even put the keys in the ignition.

On a project, this is achieved by clearly articulating the vision and desired outcomes. Ideally the project sponsor or a key stakeholder communicates the message to the project team, but failing that, the Project Manager should take on the task. If logistics permit, try to have everyone together in the same room, at the same time - the Project Kickoff is an ideal opportunity for this. 

When you share the vision with the full team early into the project, it eliminates a lot of potential misunderstandings. The team also gets to meet each other (some for the first time), and they will begin to develop a sense of rapport that will carry them through the project, even if they work at a distance from each other.

This sense of rapport will also help you push through to the end, particularly if the core team is around for the full duration of the project.


When I was twelve, friends of our family and their two boys came to stay with us for a week-long visit. We lived in a small town at the time, with not a lot generally going on, so visits from family or friends were kind of a big deal. How small was the town? Well, under a thousand, unless you added in the dogs and cats. So really, not much going on compared to a big city.

Our friends had lived in the town for several years, and we had become close; the two boys were best friends with my younger brothers, being closer in age to each other. They had moved down to Vancouver the year before, so we were all looking forward to the visit.

They arrived in their car late one summer afternoon, we helped them unload their car, and the visit began. Kids first played in the house, then in the yard, and then the noise carried on down the street, friends re-connecting and just having fun. The adults caught up on recent events, chatting for a while in the kitchen, then the conversation moved out to the back yard. The swatting of mosquitoes struck a counterpoint to the sizzle of hamburgers and steaks grilling on the Barbeque. The conversations went on late into the evening, well after the younger kids were supposed to be in bed.

Organize the Team

Once you know where you are going and what you need to do, you will need to organize the project team to get the job done. Depending on your project, this may be a small internal team, or a large, distributed team involving multiple vendors, business units and teams spread across the planet.

You need to organize the project team and assign tasks from the outset, but this is only half the battle. Managing the return journey, or the final leg of the project, can require some special handling. Some people may not want it to end, and may drag their feet on producing those final deliverables. Incidentally, this common drag-your-feet mentality may have also spawned the "20/80" rule, i.e. "the last 20 percent of the project can seem to take 80 percent of the effort".


Throughout the visit, the adults visited and kids played, from sun-up to sun down. Everyone enjoyed themselves and the time they spent together. A week can seem like a long time, but it is far too short when you are having fun visiting. However, as with all visits, it was finally coming to an end.

The night before they were to leave, the visiting father announced their schedule for the morning. He stressed that he didn't want to leave late, as they had a long drive ahead of them. 

"We need to get up early, have breakfast, and get packed up quickly so we can all be on the road by 10am," he said firmly. His wife nodded. The boys sighed. "We need everybody helping, so we can get out of here on time." 

Act on the Plan

When you have the vision, the team and your plan, you need to put it into action. Otherwise it is all just a nice theory and a pretty Gantt chart on the wall.

Plain and simple, you just need get to work - and follow the plan! Sounds, simple right?


In the morning, we all got up early and had breakfast. Once the suitcases were packed, my younger brothers and the other two boys shot out the back door for a last chance to play before they had to leave. They made the most of it, tearing up and down the street, some riding on bicycles with the others running along behind. Inside the house, the adults were chatting - well, at least the two mothers still were.

I was outside with the men, helping them carry the suitcases and bags out to the car. After nudging one suitcase a little tighter into the pile, the visiting father walked back up to the front door, and called up into the house.

"Hurry up Dear, we need to get going. We want to make it to the hotel before dinner."

"Just another minute!" was the reply.

Decide what is Actually Important

Not everything on your project is important. Well, not of equal importance anyway. There will be different sets of priorities as you work through the project, and as a result, not all relationships will go smoothly. At times, some people will disagree with your priorities or simply rub you the wrong way. 

The key thing is to think about what is most important in each situation before you react - what is the most important thing - the schedule, the deliverable - or the relationship?


He grunted as he lifted the next pair of suitcases and then walked towards the car. I grabbed a smaller suitcase and followed behind. He set down the suitcases and looked at his watch. Reading it up-side-down, I could see it was five minutes to 10.

He seemed pretty relaxed though, which surprised me. My father had told me that his friend hated to be late, and got really grumpy about it.

The odd thing was, he did not look grumpy or annoyed at all. 

More curious than polite, I just straight out asked him. "Why aren't you grumpy?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Why would I be grumpy?"

"Because Dad said you don't like to be late," I replied.


Dealing with people is hard, especially when they are not doing what you want them to be doing. It takes a lot of effort to communicate, manage expectations, re-share the vision and priorities, re-set expectations, communicate some more, only to find they are still not complying, or simply "not getting it". It can be extremely frustrating - but you have to be smart about how you approach it, rather than just acting on your frustration.

You may simply need to employ different tactics - if you can't solve the problem head on, try and approach it from a different angle.


He gave a little smile. "I used to get grumpy when we would go on trips. The first few years we were married, I got very frustrated whenever we were trying to leave. My wife would always want to have a little more time to visit or look around, no matter what I did or said."

He lifted a suitcase into the back of the car. "At first, I decided I would just start packing up early and load the car myself, to give her more time to visit. That way, she would hopefully feel she had visited enough, and would know it was time to go when I finished packing the car."


Action is not everything. Sometimes, you just need to take a step back and look at the situation or the project from a distance. When you are in the thick of things, it can be hard to look at the big picture. 

You need some time to reflect on a regular basis. Little inspiration actually happens when we are sitting at our desks, slogging away, focused on the small details. You may have already noticed that your best ideas happen when you are taking a short break, during a walk around the block, or simply on the way to the water cooler, or stepping out to get a coffee.

If you find you are getting stuck on a problem, or getting all worked up about it, you need to get up, stretch, and take a short break away from your work area. This applies equally to project problems and people problems. Take a break and some time to reflect on the issue - it will be time well invested.


He picked up the second suitcase and stuffed it into the back of the car. "Unfortunately, it didn't work. I would end up doing most of the work to pack up, and she still kept visiting long after I had finished packing the car. We would always end up leaving late, and we would often argue in the car once we got driving down the road."

"Let me tell you, you don't want to make your wife angry, even when you think you're right. It's not worth it," he warned.


"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." - Thomas H. Palmer

One key to success is to not keep doing the same things over and over again. One definition of insanity is where you repeat the same thing over and over again, but expect different results.

If what you are doing is not working, try again, certainly - but try something else. You may just need to apply a small tweak, or you may need to come up with something truly different.

One key difference between a project problem and a people problem is you can try variations on a theme with a project problem as much as you like. However, if you try that with people, it is seldom successful - they will soon see through your repeated, feeble attempts to get them to change, and more than likely get annoyed with you and become even more resistant to your efforts. 

You need to be truly innovative - and you may eventually realize that you can't change other people - but you can change you, and your approach to things.


He took the suitcase from my hand and put it on top of the other two."But now, it all works out. She gets to visit, I still load the car, and we all leave happy."

"How do you do that?" I asked as he closed the back of the car.

"I finally got smart. I realized that she would never change - she would always want to have the last few minutes of visiting. After all, it would be months or even a year before we would see our friends again. I finally learned the secret," he winked.

Kids love secrets. "What was it? What?"

Plan for Delays

No project runs perfectly to all parts of the original schedule. You need to allow for some slippage, for under-estimation of task effort. When you build your plan, you will factor in all of the things you know, and probably a lot of assumptions. You will also likely include people factors into your estimates as well - i.e. if we are able to get Bob on that part of the project, we will be able to get that done in (X) weeks, but James would take a couple weeks longer, because he has less experience.

It is bad practice to always try to design for the best-case schedule; you may not be able to get Bob or James, or even your third pick. If you need to bring in somebody new, it may even take (2X) to get the job done.

Instead, design for a realistic schedule, taking into consideration the potential resources and the level of risk on your project. Don't make it too lean or too padded, but you need to plan for a few inevitable delays. You may also want to introduce additional deadlines ahead of the important ones, in order to identify potential delays early.


He leaned down close to me and whispered. "I gave her a different departure time than when we actually need to leave. If we need to leave at Noon to get to the next stop in time, I will tell her we need to leave no later than 10am."
He stood up, still speaking quietly. "That way, she gets to visit a little longer, and we still leave a little early according to my schedule. When we finally get in the car, everybody is happy, and she feels just a little bit guilty about being late. However, I am smiling inside instead of being grumpy. There are no more arguments in the car about leaving late."


If history has shown that a particular project resource or vendor is habitually late, you may need to take extraordinary measures to ensure they don't impact your project deadlines.

The reasons behind the lateness can vary widely, from misinterpreting your final deadlines as their delivery deadlines, or a misaligned set of priorities. Proactive communication is always your best tool - but if they are late in delivery time after time, and they appear unlikely to change behavior, you need to take a step beyond the project norms.

It might only be used as a last resort, but in cases like this, you may need to have two sets of deadlines.
  • the set you share openly for them to deliver to you, and 
  • the real, final, "secret" (internal) deadlines that you are responsible to deliver to your sponsor.
In the end, you have to do what it takes to make sure you can deliver your project - on time.

He winked. "Of course, I still have to act a little grumpy to hurry them into the car, or we really would be late. But you have to promise me you won't tell her the secret, or it won't work anymore."

I still haven't told her - although if she reads this, the cat is finally out of the bag. Of course, it has been well over thirty years since then, so she may have already figured it out by herself.

Good luck with your projects, enjoy the Road Trip, and may all your projects complete on time - however you need to define your schedule.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP  
Project resources for kids:

1 comment:

  1. Its good to end my day with such a good learning. Learned good tips and tricks to close the project on time. Thanks for posting this article.