The project that was going to jump-start your career is sinking fast: The product is behind schedule, over budget, and riddled with bugs. Your “ship” is taking on water, and your team is threatening mutiny. How did you get into this mess? And how will you get out? Peter Clark shows you how to navigate the waters of project management.
Mary was enthusiastic when she was named the supervisor in charge of producing her company's next-generation product, "rodeo," even though she knew the schedule was aggressive—the project needed to be completed before a big trade show the following March. Her manager had assured her the schedule was "tight, but doable" and promised her all of the resources that she needed to make it happen.
That was almost a year ago. Since then, the "tight, but do-able" schedule has become "way behind, and impossible." The project has been in "crunch time" for the past four months as her team has struggled to complete all of the features in time. Mandatory overtime has gradually ratcheted work schedules up from 40 to 50 hours per week, then from 50 to 60, and finally to "just get the damn thing done." The project is sinking—and with it, Mary's career. Let's follow her through the day it all comes to a head, to learn both what she should have done and what she can still do to take control.
8:00 AM: The Ship Takes On Water
Mary has been the first to arrive and one of the last to leave for months now, working extra overtime to set an example for her team. Since she drove through a torrential downpour to get to work by 6:00 AM, a 7:30 AM meeting is no problem for her. But the meeting with the head of QA isn’t going well. The QA manager tells Mary that because large numbers of changes have been made to the product since Mary’s group last tested it, the group will have to do extensive retesting before it is ready for system test. This will put the project even further behind.
Mary is beginning to realize that her first mistake was failing to recognize that she had a low probability of completing the project in time and not taking immediate steps to mitigate the problem. The original sin of the software industry is the "tight, but doable" project schedule. Everything from market pressures to management perversity combines to create schedules and expectations that are better than the best that the organization ever did. And Murphy's Law mandates that something will happen to throw a "best-case" schedule off track.
9:00 AM: The Crew Is Weary
It's time for the weekly status meeting with Mary's team. As she looks around the table, she notices for the first time how gray and lifeless the team members look. They answer her questions with mumbled monosyllables and grunts. At the end of the hour, she reminds them that they will be done in just a couple of short months and how important the project is to the company. She gets no response.
Schedules that are too tight immediately put the entire project team under stress. The team is doomed to failure from day one, no matter how hard they work or what sacrifices they make. Preordained failure is like battery acid on the morale of the team.
Mary should have addressed the impossible schedule at the beginning of the project, before stakeholders hardened their expectations of the project's outcome. She needed to make her best estimate of the amount of work to be accomplished and compare it to previous projects of similar size and complexity done by her team. This would have given her a measure of how deep a hole she was in.
Mary knew that the delivery date was fixed but that other parameters were negotiable—namely budget and quality. If you find yourself in a situation like Mary's, determine how much you can adjust each one.
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