Why Project Scheduling Fails in Project Management

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Making Things Happen" by Scott Berkun. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the common mistakes to avoid when project scheduling in project management? Why are most managers bad at estimating schedules?

According to management expert Scott Berkun, project scheduling is notoriously one of the most difficult aspects of planning any project. In Making Things Happen, he describes the most common mistakes in project scheduling and how you can avoid them.

Read on to learn the top mistakes made in project scheduling and Berkun’s tips for project management.

Project Scheduling Mistakes to Avoid

According to Scott Berkun’s book Making Things Happen, project scheduling in project management forms the foundation of the planning phase for any project. Berkun claims that schedules are notoriously unreliable: Many projects fall behind schedule, which can result in over-budget projects, angry customers, and overworked employees and managers. As a project manager, you should understand why schedules are unreliable and what you can do to get the most out of them. 

Berkun states that a project manager must be aware that schedules, especially early on in the project, are rough estimates based on limited information. Estimating is hard, as it’s impossible to know how the work will develop and what might change over the course of the project, so a schedule shouldn’t be seen as a realistic prediction. The manager, as well as the rest of the team, should recognize that the schedule is merely a jumping-off point that will hopefully get more accurate as time goes on. 

Why Managers Are Bad at Estimating

Fredrick P. Brooks’s The Mythical Man-Month is a project management book that focuses on large, complex projects and how to ensure they stay on schedule. He identifies two reasons managers often inaccurately estimate how long a project will take, as well as solutions to these common problems: 

Managers want to please the customer: If a customer or client asks for a specific deadline on a project, the manager may base timing estimates on the deadline instead of a more realistic timeframe. If there is a competitor involved, these estimates can become even tighter as organizations compete to offer the fastest timeline. Brooks insists a manager must fight this temptation to please a client and be honest about a project’s timeline. Another solution is for companies to release data from previous projects so that customers don’t have unrealistic expectations.

Managers underestimate the time it takes to fix errors: Human error is a natural and unavoidable aspect of any project, but managers often overlook this when making schedules. Brooks suggests devoting more of a schedule to identifying and correcting errors.
Recognizing and communicating to others that schedules are apt to change, as Berkun suggests, could lessen the pressure to please customers and leave time for correcting errors. 

To avoid schedule failure, Berkun recommends the following project management tips: 

Include periodic review sessions: The schedule should include short periods for managers to review progress, take in new information, and make any changes necessary to the schedule or any other part of the project. The more change you expect, the more often review sessions should occur. 

Find the right balance of realism and optimism: Because schedules can be inaccurate, it’s important to set attainable timelines in project management, making room for human error but still motivating the team to work hard.

Be transparent about your scheduling approach: However you decide to use schedules, make sure the rest of the team knows the thought process behind it. If you expect the schedule to change drastically, for instance, the team should be aware of this.

Judge the team’s experience: Knowing how much experience the team has working on a particular type of project, as well as how much experience they have together, will have a big impact on the accuracy of your schedule estimates in project management. If a team has worked on dozens of similar projects together, you can feel much safer in your estimates.

How to Avoid Small Delays

In The Mythical Man-Month, Brooks points out that projects usually fall behind due to a gradual accumulation of small delays rather than major problems or issues. This is because big problems are dealt with accordingly, but smaller delays are often overlooked and underreported. 

To avoid small delays in a project, Brooks recommends setting specific benchmarks that are easy to track and easy to determine if they’re complete. This way, it’ll be much easier to track the project’s progress as a whole and there won’t be confusion on whether a task is finished. This also helps prevent small delays from being overlooked, as you’ll always know whether a task is finished or not. 

Similarly, Berkun’s tips on getting the most out of schedules also help employees avoid small delays by, for example, being realistic about what schedules can and can’t do. Frequent reviews ensure changes are taken into account and schedules adjusted accordingly. Finally, transparency toward team members and a recognition of what they can and cannot accomplish keeps everyone up-to-date and working only to the best of their individual abilities. This way, unexpected delays are mostly avoided.  

Exercise: Explore Your Experiences 

Explore your experiences with project scheduling in project management, and reflect on how you might improve such experiences in the future.

  • Think of a time when a project you were working on fell behind schedule. Why do you think it fell behind schedule? Was it due to overly optimistic deadlines, poor communication, or something else? What could have been done to keep the project on track?
Why Project Scheduling Fails in Project Management

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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