Manage Project Delays: Proactive Steps to Minimize the Unexpected

  • from ITtoolkit.com

Image of digital flip clock saying 'TOO LATE' signifying the need to manage project delays.

No matter how well planned your project schedule may be, there is always the possibility for delay.  Delays can occur for any number of reasons, some good, some bad, and some might even be a blessing in disguise.  The question is not whether delays will occur, (they will), but how they are handled once they do.  Read on to learn more.

The Seeds of Delay: Effort and Uncertainty

All projects, regardless of size, scope or complexity, are burdened by two (2) key factors: effort and uncertainty. This phenomenon is best expressed in two (2) well known, time tested adages:

  • Parkinson's Law, speaking to effort, tells us that "work expands to fill the space allotted".
  • Murphy's Law, speaking to uncertainty, tells us that "whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and most likely at the worst possible time". This is the reality faced by all project managers. No matter how much time you have for a project, it will likely be consumed, and no matter how well you plan, eventually you will always be faced with the "unexpected".

So, if work always expands to fill the space (time) allotted, and whatever can go wrong will go wrong, the only thing you can do is to be prepared.  You don't have to be a victim of effort and uncertainty - you can take charge - all in four (4) easy steps:

Step 1: Start Projects with Realistic Deadlines

Whether mandated or self imposed, deadlines bring clarity to a project. For the customer, deadlines set expectations for product delivery. For the project team member, deadlines set expectations for work effort and performance. For the project manager, deadlines create a time bound framework for management, providing working goals, benchmarks and milestones.  But, deadlines are not goals in and of themselves. The value of a project is determined by the business need, and it is the project value that should drive the project.

What are the characteristics of a "realistic deadline"? 

  1. Realistic deadlines are designed to fill specific needs (the project "mission").
  2. Realistic deadlines are designed to produce specific results (the project "deliverables").
  3. Realistic deadlines are based on actual fact - considering required work and resources
  4. Realistic deadlines are designed to incorporate and consider all relevant constraints.
  5. Realistic deadlines are designed to reflect resource availability and related capabilities.
  6. Realistic deadlines are fully reflective of all risks and priorities.
  7. Realistic deadlines incorporate "extenuating circumstances".
  8. Realistic deadlines are fully defined and documented as part of the "project definition" process.
  9. Realistic deadlines are sufficiently specific so that they can be maintained properly as project changes are approved and implemented.

Step 2: Learn to Expect the Unexpected

To certain extent, "project delays" are quite common and to be "expected". The "unexpected" nature of the "project delay" relates not to possibility, but to the type, source, probability and timing. Certain types of delays are highly predictable (i.e. late delivery from outside sources), and can be factored into the schedule before project work begins. Other types of delays may be foreseeable, but cannot reasonably be factored into the schedule in advance. If every possible delay was factored in to a planned schedule, planning would take too long, projects would be deemed too lengthy and costly, and would never be approved.

Predictable delays (those deemed likely by circumstance and experience) can be factored into the project via a documented risk management plan. When that plan is prepared, risks can be identified and evaluated to determine probable delays, and potential mitigating action. If the predicted delays do come to pass, the risk management plan will provide a pre-planned course of action.  Unexpected delays are those that were generally not foreseeable, and therefore were not factored into the risk management plan. That does not mean you cannot be prepared to act (see Step 3 below)....

Step 3: Be Proactive to Minimize the "Unexpected"

  1. Be Aware. Every project has its own rhythm and flow. Using your knowledge of project goals, priorities, and project team dynamics, you can pick up on the warning signs of pending delays, and you will be in a better position to make the tough decisions.
  2. Schedule Wisely. Unexpected delays can be minimized through strategic scheduling. Every project should begin with a reasoned, workable project schedule incorporating identified dependencies, and benchmarks.
  3. Follow a Process. Every project should be managed with established, tested procedures for timely, meaningful status reporting, whether formal or informal, provide key information to identify missed deadlines and potential project delays.
  4. Communicate Often. Communication is a key element of project success, essential for managing customer expectations and related conflicts. When facing project delays, every project manager must be able to communicate effectively with customers, relying on strong relationships to work through related issues and problems to salvage the project.

Step 4: Act to Mitigate the “Damage” Caused by Delays

What can you do to manage project "delays" once they occur?

1. Acknowledge the missed deadline and resulting delay as soon as possible. When project problems first appear, you must act quickly to avoid project delays whenever possible. But, once a deadline can't be met, and the delay seems inevitable, you must also act quickly to manage the consequences. Accept the facts, accept the responsibility, avoid blame, and get ready to respond.

2. Gather the right resources. In order to properly manage a project delay, you must to bring all the necessary resources together in order to analyze the problem and make appropriate decisions. Depending on the project and the nature of the delay, these resources can include your project sponsor, steering committee, relevant technical specialists, vendors, customers and other key decision makers.

3. Consider the consequences. Delays and missed deadlines can be accepted as long as the value of the project exceeds the consequences of the delay.  In all likelihood, delays will impact project costs, resource availability, customer relationships, and related business needs. On the other hand, delays also present opportunities for project refinement, to re-think decisions that may have led to problems, take advantage of changing business circumstances, and possibly improve project deliverables. These positive consequences must be identified along with the negatives, to create a full picture of the delay, and to minimize negative impact, while maximizing opportunity.

4. Identify and evaluate the alternatives. Once consequences are fully analyzed, alternative remedies must be examined and vetted. Depending upon needs and circumstances, multiple solutions are possible, including extending project deadlines, modifying deliverables, retaining additional resources, or changing project scope.

5. Communicate, negotiate and decide. Once alternative remedies have been identified, acceptance and approval must be obtained from all key project stakeholders. In order to ensure informed consent, a complete and revised project plan must be developed, incorporating the delayed timeline and all related contingencies. In addition, the delay must be explained and justified as needed, specifying causes, repercussions, and benefits. Whenever a delay is requested, it is important that the approving stakeholders maintain (or regain) confidence in the project and the project team. Problems should not be sugar coated. It is best to admit to any errors in judgment or planning to show that lessons have been learned, corrective action has been taken, and the project is still viable.


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