Rethinking Schedule Updating Objectives

If I turn down the noise and listen ever so carefully, sometimes I think I hear a faint chorus of skeptics who may share my doubt about the sanctity of the Holy Grail of modern Project Controls, the Baseline Schedule.  For many decades now, the prevailing wisdom has been that:
  • Well in advance of its happening, it is actually possible to create a detailed step-by-step recipe for project (temporal) success; and,
  • If dutifully followed, this Master Plan virtually guarantees project (temporal) success; and,
  • The essence of true Project Control is to constantly monitor ongoing project performance with vigilant eye trained on any deviations from the Master Plan.

Those who know me know that I have long railed against such a preposterous set of propositions. While I can present an impressive number of arguments in opposition to the prevailing thinking, perhaps only one argument needs to be raised: it runs contrary to human nature.

Looking Forward

What Project Owner does not look forward to a positive outcome for its project? What contractor does not also look forward to a profitable and successful project? My point is not so much what they look forward to, as it is that they look forward!! We humans consistently and naturally spend more of our time looking forward than backward. That is how we think.

So I was grocery shopping with my grandson the other day. We had been given a shopping list by my wife. Now, being the anal-retentive person that I am, prior to leaving home I had taken the time to rewrite her list in an order that corresponded to the layout of grocery aisles. I thought this would make our venture more efficient. Off Marcus and I went, with list in hand, and smiles on our faces.

For the first few aisles, all was going well. But then we got the crazy idea to go to movie after we finished shopping. We quickly checked movie listings on my smart phone and learned that the movie would be starting quite soon. If we were to make it in time, we would have to speed up the remainder of the shopping.

To accomplish this, we tore the list in half and went our separate ways. After a short while, we met in the middle of the store and compared our respective progress. As it turned out, each of us had missed a few items. Taking a minute to be systematic, we scratched off what we had gotten and identified what was left. We then spied the clock as well as the long checkout lines and concluded, much to our disappointment, that we would not be able to make the movie in time.

And just like a million other examples across a lifetime that I could present to you (or you could think of), our shopping experience illustrates how we humans look at (a) what is left to do, and (b) the amount of time left to do it in. That is how we pace ourselves! The point of this story is that Marcus and I did not spend time looking backward in review of what we had accomplished or the rate at which we had placed items in our respective baskets.

Looking Backward

Yet that is precisely what Dominant Project Management mandates as not just a “best” practice of — but in fact as the main reason for — updating the Project Schedule.  We update the schedule in order to perform an assortment of variance analyses aimed at identifying any instances of the actual work deviating from the planned work.  It is an entirely retrospective exercise.

The main problem with the Dominant Project Management approach is that peering backward does not advance the Project. Instead, it just monitors and maintains the Baseline Schedule. This wouldn’t be so bad if the Baseline Schedule really was a proven formula for guaranteed success. But, it’s not!

There are two inescapable flaws in the Dominant Project Management thinking: Projects are unpredictable and Project execution is circumstantial.

Taken together, this means that the very best we can hope for, if we are 100% loyal to the Baseline Schedule, is achievement of Original Plan — but never an improvement upon it. And if I sound overly cynical, may I ask you to recall, from your own experience, how a Contractor is treated should he deviate from the Baseline Schedule to any measurable degree. Is he not called upon to (a) submit a “Recovery Plan,” or (b) chastised for having not followed the schedule, for working “out of sequence?”

Guiding the Future versus Bemoaning the Past

Cognitive Project Management encourages a different mindset. It argues that the real value in updating the Project Schedule is in order to (a) see where things stand, and (b) to plot the most optimum course forward from the Present Standing to the ultimate temporal objectives.

A helpful analogy might well be different parenting styles when it comes to their child’s progress at school.  Following the Dominant Project Management mold, a parent would merely monitor test scores and report cards, and point out to the child where performance had been deficient. Such a parent would then end its involvement by requiring that the child prepare and submit a “Grade Recovery Plan.” Contrast that with the parents who would actually work with their child to help them with their homework, to help them understand the material!

Maybe It’s Simply a Matter of Perception

In hindsight, maybe it all began with the wrong set of labels.  I mean, why did we ever call the great masterpiece a “schedule?” I mean, just image the Lord’s Prayer being called the “The Lord’s Poem.” Surely the Lord’s Prayer is poetry. But that label merely describes what it is, not why we recite it. We call it a prayer because that is how it is to be used.

Cognitive Project Management describes the Project Schedule as a model of Project Execution Strategy. I have to wonder if things would be different today if we didn’t just see the Project Schedule as this dry, cold, inanimate set of data. What if we saw it as the extensively deliberated consensus of thoughtful and respecting members of the Project Team? [In another blog, How Not to Interpret an Updated Schedule,” I write about the Project Schedule being an expression of intentions, of commitment.]

Just look at how reverently we refer to the Founding Fathers, the brave souls who spent 87 hot summer days in Philadelphia crafting the U.S. Constitution. This isn’t just some multi-page set of lofty and multi-syllabic words. It is a complex and brilliant statement of intentions and promises. If only we would view each Project Schedule as a consensual commitment to a mutually-beneficial Project Execution Strategy, perhaps we would approach the routine updating of that document with a different intention.

Instead of each monthly revisiting of the document being an occasion to compare how far we may have deviated from the original intentions, what if we seize the opportunity to re-affirm our Way Forward (from where we currently stand) to our ultimate project temporal objectives?

If Scheduling Occurs Before the Fact, then Of What Use are Schedulers During Updates?

The word “schedule” is a verb; it describes something we do. We schedule an event before we experience the event, right? You don’t schedule your vacation while you are on it. You are no longer scheduling your wedding while you are exchanging your vows. Likewise, by the time the monthly update is being performed, the Project Execution Strategy is underway. The project has already been scheduler! So why is there need for a Scheduler, to perform the Schedule Update?

But wait. If we were to do as I suggested earlier, and seize the monthly update as an opportunity to re-affirm our Way Forward (and to chart a different or better course forward, if warranted), then perhaps there might indeed be a need for a qualified Scheduler to help facilitate that process.

But that is not what we have as recommended practice today. And herein we have this glaring incongruity. On the one hand, we employ a Scheduler, alright. But then, on the other hand, we discourage rescheduling the remaining work unless the current schedule is so dramatically out of sync with how things are going that a new baseline is simply unavoidable. But for that extreme, we put all pressure on the Project Team to simply get back on track.

How about a Project Journalist?

At Cognitive Project Management, we have been trying to come up with a better label for the person who manages the technical aspects of the routine Schedule Update cycle. [For starters,  we refer to this periodic cycle as a Schedule Recalibration Cycle.]  Here again, the word choice is intended to point focus on why we do what we do, not just on what we do.  The goal is to revisit the current plan of attack for the remaining work, and see if it is still valid. If not, then we plot a different course; we recalibrate. We make mid-course corrections, as beneficial.

And as for the technician who helps with this process, we have been toying with the label, Project Journalist. I am not sure we will stick with this label, but at least for purposes of this blog it is worth mentioning. I mean, we had also considered Project Historian, Document Controller, Record-Keeper, Information Engineer or Clerk, etc. But none felt as good as Project Journalist.

To us, the idea of a journalist evokes the underlying process of journaling, creating an interwoven story. Plus, the word also reminds us that we are on a “journey.” It integrates the otherwise independent records and documents in a way that they must all be consistent with one another. Contrast that with Document Control, which is all about the indexing and efficient storage and retrieval of documents. Likewise, Information Control focuses on data and databases.

But Journaling never loses sight of a continuum and consistency of information across disciplines — and across the project story. Thus correspondence, minutes, reports, databases, claims, revisions, and fact records are all interrelated, and their interweaving must be done in a consistent and compatible manner.

Never Lose Sight of Why We Do What We Do

Whether we ever change the names of the players, I hope we will never lose sight of why we do what we do.  But maybe that ship has already sailed. Why is terribly important thing to know.  It reminds me of the story of a girl who was heard defending her boyfriend, a young man that her mother especially disliked. “But Mom,” she wailed, “he is a good boy. Why else would he be doing 200 hours of community service?”

Are You Practicing Project Cannagement

Last night I watched an episode of Restaurant Impossible. In this series, world-renowned Chef Robert Irvine spends two days (and $10,000) to help a failing restaurant turn the corner and once again be successful. Each episode follows the same general formula. One Day 1, Chef Robert figures out what they are doing wrong. On Day 2, he affects changes. Usually, the problems (and fixes) center in four primary areas: food, service, management, and décor.

In last night’s episode, he watched in horror as the kitchen cook used nothing but canned and frozen foods in preparing his meals. Unable to contain himself any longer, Chef Robert went on the war path: “You call yourself a cook?  You are nothing more than a food warmer!”

As the show drifted into commercials, I turned down the sound and thought more about the cook’s over-dependence on canned foods. As I said the words aloud, “canned food,” I heard myself add, “canned reports.” Isn’t that what we call boilerplate management reports that are only different from one another by virtue of the data that falls into the columns and rows?

I got to thinking about how dependent today’s Project Managers have become on Key Performance Indicators.  I have a sarcastic expression about this; I call it Management by the Numbers (not unlike painting by the numbers). As I see it, Project Management must be uniquely delivered each and every time. Just as every project is unique, so must be each Project Management application to that project.  There is no place in our Project Time Management world for canned reports.

In Closing

In closing, let me return to the topic: the routine Schedule Update.  Why are we doing it? Forget the canned answer. Shouldn’t we be using the monthly reflection as an opportunity to confirm that we have determined to be the  best Way Forward from this point to our ultimate temporal objectives? If we take this view, then we won’t be worried, fixated, or obsessed with what we didn’t do so right in the past, as much as on where we go from here in the future.

Forward Ho!


1 Responses to Rethinking Schedule Updating Objectives

  1. Zach Reed says:

    As I think of the application of these practices, I am reminded of the prior material that mentioned the need for the entire industry to change its view on the schedule and time management. Being a project facilitator and expressing a desire to stop looking backward and ditch the old reports does not address the issue of, for example, Owners writing in contractual statements that perpetuate the Dominant ideology. This really would require a shift in thinking for all parties involved.

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