Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Extended Project Deadlines are a Double Edged Sword

Extended Project Deadlines are a Double Edged Sword

By Dennis D. McDonald

Via Twitter my friend Michael Kaplan (@mkaplanPMP) tipped me off to the recent HBR Blog Network article Here’s what really happens when you extend a deadline by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

Halvorson leads with a reference to the delays in implementation of the U.S. Affordable Care Act. I saw her list from a project manager’s perspective:

  1. Problem number one: we lose motivation

  2. Problem number two: we procrastinate

  3. Problem number three: we are terrible judges of how long things take

She then describes “how to make good use of an extended the deadline” by using the opportunity to manage your work better by establishing your own interim deadlines.

Experienced project managers will recognize the reality of Halvorson’s points. One of the most important elements of project management is Change Management, and one of the most malleable parts of some projects is the schedule itself. It’s not unusual to see dates for interim and final deliverables shift. The shifts, unfortunately, are not always under the control of the project manager.

While Halvorson focuses on the personal aspects of extended deadlines, there is also the cost issue to consider. We see this in some of the impacts of the U.S. Federal budget sequester when many agencies were caught flat-footed by the need to reduce budgets. Many elected to do so through the blunt instrument of staff furloughs. 

My first reaction (again, from a project manager’s perspective) was that this approach would automatically increase total cost for many projects, especially longer project with many interdependencies. One reason for this is related to what Halvorson says in her list. Lost momentum translates into delayed decisions and less efficient use of available time. While some of the tendency to burn through increased slack time can be controlled by management, a large project with many interdependencies will be a challenge to control.

How does one prevent the tendency towards increased cost when schedule “goalposts” keep getting moved? Managing project in smaller chunks is one approach. Another approach is to use the forced change as an opportunity to increase the efficiency with which resources are allocated and managed across projects. Still another approach, suggested by some in my own research, is to make substitutions in modified projects using less expensive staff and other resources.

In the federal project management world there are several constraints that need to be considered when examining such options:

  1. Even if intermediate deadlines can be adjusted, are there other legislative or legal constraints on the final deadline?

  2. If the resources supporting the project are a mix of agency staff and contractors, are other constraints imposed by employment, union, or contractual agreements?

  3. Will substituting less expensive staff impact project performance and or quality?

An important consideration is how management control is exerted. Many federal projects are currently “outsourced” to external contractors. Others rely on services performed by intermediate parties such as state or local government agencies, educational institutions, and health care and social service providers. Controlling the ripple effects of deadline changes in such complex performance and delivery networks is already a challenge.

Now that we are facing the possibility of another federal shutdown, the obvious need exists to plan ahead. Perhaps the wise thing to do, given the ongoing management challenges that many federal projects face, is to acknowledge the reality that managing by deadline will continue to be a challenge and in many circumstances may actually be an unrealistic goal.

If this is the case, what are management’s options given a justifiable need to know when projects will complete?

At minimum, project and program managers need the ability to know and communicate to project and program stakeholders what the implications are of changed deadlines in terms of cost, quality, and performance.The sooner these impacts are known the better off we’ll all be:

  • Agency management will be in a better position to manage its operations that support legally mandated public responsibilities.

  • Congress in its legislative oversight role will better understand the implications of funding decisions.

  • The public will be in a better position to understand how its tax dollars are being spent.

Many federal programs, especially those with mature or well-developed program management operations, are already be able able to estimate the impacts of schedule and deadline changes. Because many may not be so equipped, I’m also investigating several different approaches to providing such impact data where it is lacking.

If you would like to discuss this with me please let me know.

Copyright © 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

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