Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sunny Day Scenarios

You’re a project manager tasked with putting together the schedule for a new and critical project. You are told by senior management that this is an extremely critical project, and that it is essential to the company’s future success that it is delivered as quickly as possible and that whatever delivery date you come up with absolutely must be met. You are told that Sales is basing their forecasts on the availability dates you provide, and that Finance is basing their revenue and net income projections based on your schedule. The whole company is depending on you delivering on your commitments without fail.

You know you want the schedule to be as aggressive as possible to get products to market as soon as possible, but recognize that it must also be realistic and achievable, and that it must be met. You meet with all of the appropriate people, define all of the necessary tasks and their anticipated durations and dependencies, and incorporate the critical interactions among and between organizations (including organizations within and outside of your own company). You do your best to push back on people to make sure what they tell you is truly achievable and can be counted on. You apply what you feel to be an appropriate level of contingency on critical path tasks. Still, you have some level of discomfort that you’re missing something in the schedule you’ve put together.  

Before you finish and present the final schedule as complete, do at least one more check (really considerably more than one). Make sure, to the best of your ability, that no part of the schedule is based on Sunny Day Scenarios, where the people giving you task duration and dependency estimates base their estimates on everything going just right, or on other people providing what they need just in time. “Sunny Day Scenarios” can and will kill a schedule, and over time you will watch your carefully put together schedule fall apart, and your credibility in the organization with it. [See also Failing to Plan Means You Are Planning to Fail!, What Gets Measured Gets Done!, and Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!]

What are some of the “Sunny Say Scenario” pitfalls you need to look out for? They can be categorized as Schedule, People, and Management related.

Schedule Related:

  • Have you truly defined all of the necessary tasks? What tasks are you missing? What dependencies are you missing? Recognize that you can’t be perfect, but look hard and long to ensure that you aren't missing key schedule tasks and dependencies."
  • Have you included all necessary tasks and dependencies within the group (e.g. for engineering: hardware engineering, software engineering, QA, etc.), and between organizations within the company (e.g. for engineering, product management, technical writing, marketing, sales, finance, manufacturing, tech support, etc.)? Do you fully recognize the importance of hand-offs within and between organizations? Is the importance of those hand-offs fully understood by all parties involved? 
  • Have you included all necessary tasks and dependencies between the company and outside companies (e.g. industrial designers, printed circuit board layout companies, manufacturing companies, agency compliance test companies, etc.)? Are the tasks and dependencies in all of these cases truly understood? Recognize that you do not have direct control of outside resources, and that other demands unrelated to your project could force them to take actions that are contrary to your needs. Make sure you have commitments from them to meet the demands that have been placed upon them.Their failure to deliver on time may have little impact on them, but a huge impact on you, and you don’t have any direct control. 

People Related:  You need to recognize and account for many things in planning and scheduling a project. The following apply to engineers, and most are common to most organizations in a company, but you can put together your own list for your discipline or area of the company:

  • Engineers (and others) tend to be, by their nature, optimists.  
  • They tend to think that things can be done more quickly than is often the reality.
  • They often assume that their work will go well, without any major problems. They also tend to think others’ work will go well.
  • They tend to see what can go right much better than they can see what can go wrong.
  • They tend to assume they and others will do everything right the first time, when in reality that will not always (ever?) be the case.
  • They project that others on whom they will depend will deliver what is needed on or ahead of time.
  • They do not foresee the ongoing support activities that they will be called on to handle. They do also not foresee other demands that will be placed on them.
  • They do not account for the (often endless) meetings that they will be asked (forced) to attend.
  • They do not foresee the “demos” they will be asked to prepare to “show progress” (vs. “making progress”). [See Showing Progress vs. Making Progress Syndrome]
  • They often do not incorporate contingency into their planning.
  • They often don’t account for vacations, holidays, or being sick. This is the case not only for themselves, but for others on whom they may depend.
  • They tend to assume that they can “invent” on a schedule, when in reality “invention” is unpredictable at best, and often frustratingly hard.
  • They often don’t think through the way the end user may actually try to use the product versus the way they think the end user should use the product. They often think in terms of the ways other engineers will think, rather than in terms of the ways mere mortal, non-technical end users will think. [See The Inmates Are Running The Asylum!, and How Do I Get This D@#% Thing To Work!]
  • They often don’t think through all of the error paths, exceptions, etc.
  • They often cave in to pressure when a manager, project manager, senior manager, etc., says it must be done in less time. [see The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game]

Management Related:

  • Management is most interested in seeing a profitable new product/program out in the market generating new revenues.They will push hard to see this happen, and generally do not understand the complexity of the product/program or of the project. They simply want it done (think of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s frequent statement, “Make it so!”). [See No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn't Have To Do It!] You need to inject a sense of reality into their expectations and not cave in yourself to unrealistic expectations. [See  Unrealistic Expectations

Everyone involved in a critical project wants it to be a success. Careful project planning can help make this so. While many people, especially management, will initially demand that the product be delivered yesterday, they will often accept a delivery date later than they would like if they can have confidence that it will actually be delivered per a published schedule. Once committed to, however, and especially when they have not set the delivery date but you have, they expect delivery on time. Failure to deliver at that point is unacceptable. Consequently it is imperative that you meet your promises. Avoiding Sunny Day Scenarios is one way to help ensure you can.

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