How to complete projects on time and within budget

Summary

In order to deliver projects on time, a good project manager needs three things:

  1. Good software.
  2. A clear plan.
  3. A reliable delivery chain.

How can managers complete projects on time?

A project can be considered an accumulation of several tasks, and any task can be broken down into subtasks. Each subtask has an estimated duration, and this duration can be used to calculate the total duration of the project. If a project has subtasks, then estimating the total duration is a lot easier. But what happens if a subtask takes longer than expected?

The approach most project managers use is to estimate the duration of the project as a whole, and add the duration of each subtask. This makes total duration look shorter, and it gives project managers a false sense of security. But total duration is the total of all durations. So if a project has subtasks, the total duration includes both the durations of the subtasks and the total duration of the project as a whole. Estimating the total duration this way is misleading.

A better approach is to estimate the duration of the project as a whole, and then add a buffer to the total duration. This is easier than it sounds: any task can be broken down into subtasks, and estimating the duration of a subtask is done in just the same way. The buffer is the difference between the total duration and the sum of the durations of the subtasks. The buffer gives a more accurate picture, and it gives managers a chance to make adjustments, if necessary, either to the durations of the subtasks or to the project as a whole.

But a buffer is only useful if the buffer is big enough. A buffer of 30% gives managers time to react to problems, but a buffer of only 5% is pointless. What managers need is an estimate of the total duration of the project but also an estimate of the probability that the project will be late. This probability can be calculated by counting the number of tasks that need to be finished earlier than expected, and dividing that number.

A Perfect project

Some projects take forever. You spend years putting in the effort, and at the end, when you think you've completed the work, you discover there is a pile of defects. This isn't necessarily because the project was stupid. If everything had gone well, there might have been no defects. But something went wrong, and defects piled up.

How do you know what went wrong? Maybe the development team wasn't large enough. Maybe the work was split up among too many teams. Maybe the project manager didn't allocate enough resources. Maybe the requirements were wrong. Unfortunately, the only way to find the answer is to look at the project. You can't ask someone else, "Did you allocate sufficient resources?" You have to find out for yourself by inspecting the project.

The kind of project we are talking about here is called a "perfect" project. A perfect project is one that has to be finished on a fixed schedule. For example, a university may want a building to be finished by a certain date. Or if a company has a contract with a customer, and the customer wants the product to be completed on a fixed date, that's a perfect project.

In either case, if the project is perfect, there is a fixed schedule for completion. And a perfect project can't tolerate defects. Defects are expensive. So the question is, how do you deliver projects on time? The perfect approach has two aims. First, you identify the major risks that are associated with the project. Then you manage those risks so you can deliver the project on time. The perfect approach is sometimes called "risk-based planning."

How can Finclock Help?

The problem with project management is that it is hard. The project management software industry says this explicitly: "The most common project management problem is finding the time to do all of the tasks." The industry then sells software that helps, but it turns out that once you start using it, the tasks still pile up.

Finclock online project management software for businesses removes that pileup. It turns every employee into a project manager. Employees can sign up as project managers, and whenever anyone wants to make a change, they get assigned to that project. The project manager then assigns tasks to people and tells them when changes are due. The project managers can see a list of outstanding tasks, and as employees complete them, they can move that task to the top of the list. Finclock bills itself as a helpful, easy way to manage projects, and it does that well. But it's also an excellent example of how software can turn hard problems into easy ones.

The problem with project management is that you can't (or don't want to) do it yourself. Finclock turns that into an advantage. The software does all the work, so you don't have to. And by avoiding the step of training employees to use the software, it saves you the effort of training them in the first place.

Here's how it works. First, you sign up as a project manager. Then you add projects and tasks. Each project has a name, an owner, a description, and start date. Each task is a description, a due date, and an assignee. Next, you add employees. Each employee can sign up for their own projects, and when they want to complete a task, they click a button that says "Add to Finclock." Finclock remembers who has done what, and when.

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Why FInclock?

The term "project management" is as vague as "business management." So is "project management software." The best-known, Microsoft's Project, is hampered by overambition. It is too general. Based on Microsoft's experience making Windows, Microsoft thought that all businesses must be managed like Microsoft itself, which spends months or even years putting new features into the product before it even tries to market it.

The idea behind finclock is to link the moving parts of a project (people, tasks, documents, meetings) to a clock. A clock shows what time it is. A clock tells you when things happen.

The clock metaphor is natural. Human resources managers have long used time clocks to keep track of employees' hours. But far more interesting to Dixon and Patzer were time clocks in factories and mines. The clock was a way of keeping two things aligned: the workers and the machine. The clock showed when the workers had to stop, and when the machine had to stop. The clock made efficiency possible.

In the same way, finclock links people, tasks, and customer needs

Let customers be satisfied

It's hard to deliver a project on time, and even harder to deliver it in a way that has minimal impact on others. But it's very hard to do it in a way that satisfies the customer — at least, the one who has the money. The problem's very simple. You need to deliver something. But the customer wants you to deliver it in a way they think is best. And the only way you can do that is by consulting them.

And that's the rub. The customer has the money. The customer has the final say. The customer has the power to say no. The customer is in charge. So how do you know what you want to say is right? How do you know what the customer wants? How do you know you're listening?

In software, its easy. The customer is you. You set the goal for the project, you manage the process, and you ask all the right questions. But in the real world, the customer is someone else, and the customer may be your boss. And your boss may want you to deliver the project in a way that pleases her, not right.  And of course, while the customer has the power to say no, the customer doesn't always have the final say. The customer's boss has the power to say no, too. And the boss's boss, and so on.

So even though the customer has the final say, the customer isn't always the boss. So how do you balance the interests of the customer with those of your boss? And when the customer is not the boss, how do you balance the interests of the customer with those of the customer's boss?

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