How many times have you thought or even said this? “If our people would just hit their milestones or task due dates, our projects would meet their deadlines.”
I’ve certainly been guilty of it. And when I ask a room full of execs and managers this question during a workshop, every hand goes up. The conventional wisdom is that if we get all the individual pieces right the big picture will take care of itself.
The conventional wisdom is wrong.
Focusing on milestones or task deadlines is a big part of what causes most projects to finish late. It’s not that due dates aren’t important. But the only due date that really matters is the project due date. So let’s talk about the problems with this “sum of the parts” mentality.
To begin with, milestones are a state of being – not a description of what needs to be done. A project plan that consists mostly of high level milestones like Design Complete, Prototype Ready, or Charter Customer Feedback Received isn’t a plan at all. It’s a checklist. It lacks detail about what needs to be done. Now I’m not suggesting you get into the minutia – just that you sketch out the key steps needed to accomplish each milestone. Without that work break down structure, and a clear picture of the relationships between tasks, you can’t visualize where time can be saved.
But even more importantly, the focus on milestone and task due dates encourages wasteful behavior. The most famous is Student Syndrome – the perpetual postponement of tasks until the last possible moment before the deadline. But others are Apple Polishing – the relentless result of unnecessary perfection and Sandbagging – a delaying tactic to prevent expectations from being raised next time. Combine these behaviors with the near certainty that unexpected issues will come up during the project, and you create a situation where any buffer (and there’s always buffer even if no one wants to admit it) is wasted on procrastination instead of it’s only justifiable reason for existence – protecting the due date.
Instead of focusing on due dates, we want people working on tasks without interruption and handing work off as soon as possible to the next person who’s ready and waiting. This is what Critical Chain project managers call “running the relay” race.
If you’d like to change your focus from milestones to the race, here are a few articles you might want to consider: