Dear PM Advisor. June 10, 2013

Dear PM Advisor, You advise the teams to develop their own project objectives during their first planning session. That's all great and it must be pretty easy to meet this objective since you get the dates and budget from bottom-up estimates. But in my company we are handed those constraints from management before we ever start planning the project. How do you handle that?

Constrained in Maryland

Dear Constrained,

Don't be concerned. I'm here in the real world with you. Projects don't enter the planning phase from a vacuum. There is usually a lot of work done in advance before a project is authorized to enter the planning phase. And in these earlier phases there are promises made about budget and schedule. Regardless of how many assumptions and questions we attach to these earlier objectives, management is still hearing a date and a budget and expect you to meet these.

So the typical scenario is that your team starts planning the project but are told by those who authorized the project when they expect you to finish and how much money you are expected to spend. What you need to do is record that information as the management mandated constraints and then go ahead and plan the project from the bottom-up anyway. Answer all these questions:

  • What activities are required to complete the scope?
  • How long does each activity take?
  • How are the activities linked to each other?
  • How much does each activity cost?

From the answers to these questions you will determine the bottom-up estimate of project budget and schedule. And they won't match the management mandated constraints. What do you do next?

Try some alternatives analysis to see if fast-tracking or crashing will reduce the timeline to meet the constraint. Try using cheaper suppliers or resources on some items. Remember that these techniques add risk and cost to the project. Look at reducing scope.

Then it is time to have the conversation with management. Here is the talk-track I want you to use:

  • You've asked for us to do A for $X by Y
  • We haven't figured out how to deliver A by that YET (Yet is a powerful word)
  • We can run these two deliverables in parallel but that adds the following risk
  • We can use this supplier and these cheaper resources to these activities and add this risk
  • We can add resources to these three activities and reduce the end date by this amount
  • We can reduce the scope by this item and bring the date to your expected end date
  • Please let me know your thoughts on these alternatives
Then allow them to make the trade-offs required to deliver what they can. It is up to the team to perform the alternatives analysis so that management has the facts to make the intelligent decisions. This is why they get the big bucks. This is another reason why you need to make assumptions in your activities regarding cost and schedule so that this alternatives analysis can be performed.

Once management has made their decision, re-baseline the project and strive for early delivery of each activity so that you have some buffer when problems occur and you can still hit the deadlines.

Good luck,

PM Advisor

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