Managing Projects with Critical Launch Dates

Jon  Chiappa

June 24, 2014

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I recently had a client with a web project that was extremely time sensitive. They were launching a new name and new branding. On a specific day everything was changing: print materials, location signage, and their website. They were planning a large unveiling and the new website had to be ready.

As a project manager at Extractable, the majority of projects I run tend to be planned using the Critical Path Method (CPM) of project management.

This is the standard agency planning method where the team sits down together, lists the various tasks they believe will be required to complete the project, and estimates the amount of time required to complete those tasks. Each task then gets strung together based on the order required to complete them.

The Critical Path Method has been used by agencies for decades, but there are often two consequences with using this:

1)   No task will be completed sooner than required. Since design and development are never perfect, the team will always continue to refine a deliverable until it needs to be completed.

 2) There are some tasks that will take longer than expected. Initial web development project plans are often 6 months to a year. There will be unexpected issues that weren't accounted for during the initial planning. Everyone on the team knows this, but no one knows where it will happen. Because of the unexpected, every task on the plan gets a little extra time "just in case." Some of the tasks don't get enough "additional time" and they cause the final launch date to slip.

A process I read about in a book called Critical Chain written by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt seemed like a possible solution.

With this new way of planning, we would take the "just in case" time everyone adds to each task, remove it from each individual task, and string it together in a single block at the end of the project. This means the final launch date is the same as when using the Critical Path Method, but you have a large block of "additional time" at the end of the project which doesn't have a task assigned to it. I really liked the idea of planning a project this way to reduce the risk of missing a critical launch date.

There were two main issues I had to overcome within the agency if I was going to try the Critical Chain method:

1)   The team had to accept a different way of managing the project. They were concerned that reducing the task estimates by removing the "just in case" time was simply going to make them work harder. The team had to trust that we could extend the deliverable timelines, when needed, by using the "additional time" we were bucketing at the end of the project.

2) The client had to be flexible with deliverable dates. I presented the client with two project plans. They both had the same launch date, 6 months from the start. One plan had tasks neatly assigned all the way to launch. The second plan had tasks finishing after only 4 months with 2 months of "unassigned" time. I explained to the client the difference between the plans. The first one was our traditional plan. The second plan, I felt, reduced the risk of missing the launch date but the client had to be flexible with timing for deliverable reviews. For example, the agency normally takes two weeks for design concepts. We were planning only one week but it might not be ready after only 1 week. (It ended up taking 1 week and 2 days.) They had to be flexible and comfortable moving the dates if necessary

Results: After several conversations the team decided to trust a new planning process and the client agreed to be flexible. The website launched on the exact day the client needed.  The team hit most of the dates on the shortened project plan, but there were places we needed to adjust. We used 2 weeks from the "additional time" bucket for several of the deliverables. The client unexpectedly took an extra 4 weeks to gather content, which was allotted for within the "additional time" bucket. The remaining two weeks left of  "additional time" was spent completing extra QA on the site, which provided for a polished, tight website for an exciting launch of a new brand.

The Critical Chain project management process isn't appropriate for all projects, but with the right combination of a team open to trying something new, a flexible client, and an immovable go-live date, the Critical Chain process can help reduce the risk of missing your launch.