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I recently worked with a team of folks who were working on a renovation project and the schedule went horribly awry. No one was happy. At some point, I was trying to help a startup that kept postponing project management coaching sessions because they were behind. The irony…. Everywhere I turn, teams are struggling to meet deadlines.

In part, thanks to the construction world, the term scheduling has become almost synonymous with project management. When a project finishes on schedule, folks tout that the project was a success, and vice versa. It’s just not true.

(The renovation project finished a year behind schedule and was an outstanding success. The group has an outstanding facility at the price they agreed to pay. The problems, that were uncovered in the construction work and delayed the schedule, were fixed.)

Schedules are vastly more important on construction projects than business projects. In construction work, there are large quantities of supplies that must be ordered in advance and shipped to sites where there is limited storage. Subcontractors juggle crazy schedules on multiple jobs and have to plan ahead. And then, there are the weather delays and the unknowns that are discovered when working on old buildings.

Scheduling software, such as Microsoft Project, has been used for years in the construction world. This approach has been adopted in many businesses. But on business projects, it just doesn’t work well. You can learn more about that here.

In this blog, I provide six recommendations for keeping a more creative project on schedule. I’m talking about those kinds of projects where the team is simply flying by the seat of its pants – because they are doing something that has never been done before. It could be creating new software, developing a new pharmaceutical drug, designing a new academic program, or producing a new strategic plan. Teams are working together on activities that have simply not been done before by the group.

Understand how your project fits together and what is critical.  

What exactly is needed to meet the project objectives? A graphic tool, such as a work breakdown structure, is a good tool for understanding the project. Just as all deadlines aren’t equal, all activities are not equal either. Understand which ones represent key deliverables, carry significant risks, have greater complexity, or will require significant cash to complete. Know which deadlines are critical, and meet those deadlines. By focusing on critical deadlines, and using those that are less important to simply drive the project, you increase your success.

Keep your team emotionally invested in the project.  

People do what they love first, so spend your time making them love your project. Remember why you are doing the project and communicate this vision often.

Use time blocking to improve focus.

One of the biggest problems in schedule management is a lack of focus. Teams are scattered in so many directions that time is wasted on things that don’t matter. Try using two-week time blocks to accomplish a designated group of activities. Don’t let other things distract your team from these activities.

Hold standing meetings to bring daily commitment.

Teams that meet daily to review accomplishments, commit to the next set of tasks, and identify problems increase accountability. The project manager, after the meeting, can resolve problems that are identified so that the team can stay focused on its work.

Designate activity leaders.  

Ensure that all activities have a committed “leader” assigned who will execute or oversee execution. If your organization works with volunteers, ensure that a paid staff person is assigned to oversee each major category of activities. That staff person should be alert to problems. Since volunteers will not likely be attending daily standing meetings, the staff person functions as a liaison between the volunteer leaders and the project team.

Manage scope.  

In addition to a lack of focus, one other reason that teams often miss deadlines is because they go off track, working on activities that are not identified in the scope. In a creative environment, filled with smart workers, ideas frequently surface about how we can do this, or that, or do some activity better. The ideal time for these conversations is during project planning, where these conversations often result in a lean way of accomplishing the project scope. Once the project goes into execution, too many of these discussions can paralyze a team. Organizations profit from having a very clearly defined method for handling great ideas.

Organizations profit from having a very clearly defined method for handling great ideas. Share on X

Do you have any good ideas on how to help those who are struggling to meet deadlines? Comment below.

Photo Credit: Clear About Your Options? by Angeline Veeneman; CC BY-ND 2.0 License;