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Planning Impossible Timescales

November 11, 2021

Every project plan needs an outline

How do you put a project plan together and keep your head when you are asked to plan impossible timescales? You are not alone, in fact, many of us are asked to achieve miracles every day!

Let’s take a scenario, it’s a Thursday afternoon, you’ve been called into the big boss’ office with no notice. Your boss starts explaining a new ‘thing’ that they wish to launch to win to make the most of a new commercial opportunity. Maybe it’s a new software platform, maybe it’s a new type of electronic widget (you can imagine what you do for a living here to help your imagination).

Then comes the news you expected, your boss wants this whole thing to be ready to go in 6 months! Yes, you heard it, you are now expected to create a project plan for impossible timescales! Your brain is racing, knowing the last project like this took 18 months and you are still firefighting daily issues with the product or service that was launched. 

So, what do you do? Follow these steps whilst taking deep breaths and you will be amazed at the results.

Establishing your stakeholder expectations before creating a project plan

So, when you are being asked to create a project plan for impossible timescales, following this path, and make detailed notes:

Ask your boss for an overview of WHAT needs to be delivered.

Make sure you understand WHY the business wants to do this (so important)

Find out WHERE they intend for this to be done

Ask HOW they think you are going to deliver it

Clarify WHO is going to be available for the project,

Confirm WHEN they want it (6 months in this case)

Finally, and importantly ask HOW MUCH they think it’s all going to cost, (this is where they give you their guesstimated budget). 

So what are we doing here? You are gauging your stakeholders expectations, getting the picture in their head onto paper. This stage is absolutely essential in defining the overall expectations. If your boss tells you she thinks it should cost £0.5m, you have a ball park of what to aim for in planning. You’ll know that going back with a £10m project budget won’t fly, so if you are struggling to achieve the scope (the WHAT) for £0.5m then you can have a far more constructive conversation with her when you go back.

Creating a plan with impossible timescales 

The next stage is now the crucial building stage. You need to now establish all the same answers to the questions above to see if it is going to fly. If you go away and make a project plan that mimics what they asked for without an understanding HOW you are going to actually deliver it, you will likely fail. If you don’t answer the many many unanswered questions of WHAT you are going to have to do, you are walking down the classic project management failure. These are the same failures that blight corporations everyday, but now you can be different!  

Maybe you feel you have no choice, your boss doesn’t care about reality, just that he or she has a Gantt chart and project plan document that echoes their wishes to present to some higher stakeholder. 

But what real value does this have to anyone? A scenario can be that you kick off the project and spend 2 months working with the stakeholders trying to figure out exactly what they want. You gradually realize this is an 18 month project at 5 x the cost of their budget, and now you are seen as the project manager who is failing the company. The project plan with impossible timescales is now running way behind schedule, over budget, and failing. It was you presented the original plans, not your boss, so who is going to get the blame?

The 7Q Approach – a NEW way to project plan

  • You write down your understanding of WHY you are undertaking this project.
  • Then, specify yours and your teams understanding of WHAT they need to deliver, writing down all assumptions, caveats, dependencies, etc.  
  • You specify WHERE the work is going to be done and delivered (maybe multiple locations).
  • You breakdown HOW you are going to do it (break down the big chunks of works into smaller pieces).
  • Then you assume WHO is going to do it, (staff, subcontractors, etc).
  • From here you can figure out a timescale, or WHEN it can all be done.
  • Then sum it all up into a project budget (HOW MUCH).

So, let’s go back and take a different path. Once you have gauged your stakeholders estimates for WHAT, WHEN & HOW MUCH (scope, cost and time), now you can go away and have a real crack at the 7Q approach (7 questions of a project plan).  

This can be done in an afternoon or over a couple of days, run a couple of iterations, from the HOW MUCH you go back to WHY, WHAT, WHERE, HOW, WHO, WHEN & HOW MUCH again, making changes as you see them. 

THEN you can go back to your stakeholders with some genuine estimates, with details, assumptions, possibilities, and so much more. 

So, let’s say your stakeholders don’t like the new WHEN (scope) and HOW MUCH (schedule)! What can you do? If your WHEN and HOW MUCH are out of alignment, you MUST change WHAT you are doing, HOW you are doing it, or WHO is doing it. That’s right, the key steps to meeting impossible timescales is to ‘De-Scope’, find and easier path, or find cheaper resource. De-scoping is effectively offloading work. You can always persuade your boss that the other work can be done at a ‘later stage’. You can even build a roadmap showing the future phases after the initial project has been successful. 

Getting the WHAT (scope) down to an absolute minimum is the GOLD to realising impossible timescales. Work out the bare essentials, the absolute minimum that you could get away with delivering whilst keeping people happy. 

An impossible timescale example!

You talk to a builder and say: “I want a 4 bed house in 4 months for $40k.” The builder may say, “for $40k you can have a 1 bed chalet, not a 4 bed, and I can do that in 3 months.” You say, “ok, how much for a 3 bed?” “A 3 bed will be $140k and take 6 months.” What is happening here? You are iterating, you have your wishes, the builder gives you what can be done, so why do corporations not follow this basic approach, often sticking stubbornly to the original ask.

Its normally because the project manager is ignored by the corporate boss’, who in this example will tell the top brass that you will be delivering the 4 bed for $40k in 6 months, and they’ve forced some poor project manager into showing in documents what is effectively a delusion. 

So, you keep negotiating with your stakeholders, going back and forth to come up with a project plan that is achievable and minimise scope (WHAT) as much as possible, then, and only then, can you deliver to an impossible timescale. 

Want to learn some more about Fred? Check out his LinkedIn here! 

Or check out some more of Fred’s top tips here: How to Create a Project Plan Cost Budget 

By Fred Warner

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