Some schedule games--Split Focus and Pants on Fire--are the result of your management not making certain decisions about the project portfolio. Without those decisions, your project has problems. In this column, Johanna Rothman explains what you can do when the problems on your project are caused by your management's lack of decision making.
Imagine you're working on or managing a project. You're dealing with risks and making technical decisions--pretty much humming along. The project isn't easy, but you're making progress. One day, you arrive at work and your boss says, "Stop working on that project. Work on this one instead." You do. A week later, the same thing happens--you stop working on the second project and move on to the third. Welcome to the Pants on Fire schedule game.
Pants on Fire is bad enough, but some managers don't even let you work on just one project at a time. You may have had a boss like one of mine who said, "I'd like you to spend 50 percent of your time on project A, 35 percent of your time on project B, and 15 percent of your time on project C." You and I both know there's no way you're making progress on projects B or C, but they do successfully split your focus off project A. The multitasking you're doing is the Split Focus schedule game.
Split Focus, the multitasking schedule game, and Pants on Fire, the flip-flop priority game, have similar causes: Your managers can't or won't decide which project is most important right now. Making those decisions is tough, and some managers don't know how to decide.
People who have been working in the software industry for more than three weeks have probably encountered these two pervasive schedule games. Both of these schedule games cause context-switching for the project team members--including the project manager--and will slow your projects, sometimes to a crawl.
But what should you do if you're a project manager or technical lead and you realize your management is causing most of the problems on your project? Prayer might be helpful but is not enough. Here are some actions you can take.
Start with an Agile Approach
If you're not already working in short (one- to two-week) timeboxed iterations, implementing by feature and integrating as you go, start that now. One of the reasons your managers might have such a difficult time selecting the most important project and keeping people on it is that they don't know when you'll be done with your project. With timeboxed iterations, you can show them how far along you are at the end of the iteration, and you have a better chance of predicting when you'll be done.
Say your organization needs to release something in six months, but you won't be done for eighteen months. You might be able either to release something from this project in six months or to put this project on hold until you've completed another project in six months or fewer.
Know What "Done" Means
Make sure you're doing the minimum required. Sometimes your managers will use Pants on Fire to move people off one project that they think is complete enough. If you haven't defined release criteria, do so now. Make sure everyone understands what "done" means for this system.
Estimate with Ranges
Sometimes managers invoke Pants on Fire or Split Focus because the team missed its estimate for project completion. Instead of only providing one date for project completion, try providing a range or a confidence level with different dates. Say to your manager, "I have a 70 percent confidence we can meet June 30, and a greater than 95 percent confidence we can meet September 15," and you'll have a different conversation about when to stop this project and start another one.
Build a Project Portfolio
If you've already taken these steps and your management still wants to have your project team