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It Won't Happen on Its Own: Driving Schedule Control

Project Management Essentials

All the project planning steps have been followed, everyone is aware of the milestones, and the team is working hard. So, why are things not on track? In this article, I explain why doing everything right might not be enough and provide you tips for (politely) driving schedule and scope control.

My Background

First, a little bit about me. I started managing projects for Hughes Aircraft in 1998, and I have since managed dozens of projects, ranging from $250k to > $800M in size, from 16 people to > 450 people. These projects have used a mixture of methodologies - Agile, Waterfall, Agilefall – and also had a variety of cost types - Cost Plus, Fixed Price, Time and Materials.

My specialty is in space and defense. I have worked with satellite buses, optical payload, satellite ground systems, torpedo manufacturing, satellite component manufacturing, research and development, IT network upgrades, Enterprise Systems development (SAP and others), and now I do consulting through  my own company.

My real specialty is helping to recover projects that have gone into the red from a cost and/or schedule perspective. So, if I show up on your project, it’s bad news – but the bad news part is probably not a surprise to you. 

Where’s the Project Plan?

My first focus is always on project plans. All of the ailing projects that I have joined have had insufficient project plans. I have heard lot of explanations for missing project plans, including:

  • This is an internal development project
  • This is a small team
  • All of our team members are full-time on the project
  • We’re using Agile

But the reality is that everyone knows planning is important. When I started in my career, training in project management was rare. These days, people start learning about project management in high school and college. The skillsets and tools needed are a regular topics at workplaces, and many positions even require the PMP certification.

The teams I have worked with know that project plans are key to scope and schedule control; plans define the who, what, how much, and timing of everything that needs to be done. A solid project plan is needed to drive prioritization. A solid project plan enables PM negotiations on scope and budget because the credible details allow a team to point to precisely what is needed – thus forestalling philosophical discussions with decision-makers.

The problem is that sometimes project plans feel like a hopeless endeavor, and teams give up on them. That frustration needs to inform your tactics as a Project Manager. 

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” - Peter Drucker

Common issues for scope and schedule control are typically rooted in how the team approaches the project plan, and thus they often have a basis in organizational culture. That culture can influence important aspects of a project, such as:

  • Managing resource constraints
  • Prioritizing tasks / ability to prioritize
  • Giving negative feedback
  • Handling stakeholders

In the area of resource constraints, the most common challenge I see is an attitude that asserts, “There’s no help coming.” As the schedule slips, the team knows they have to make their due date, but the leaders aren’t reducing scope; instead, they are continually cutting durations of tasks and overestimating how much one person can do in a day - just so that they can show how the plan still closes.

In the area of task prioritization, what I’ve seen is really an inability to do so. I have heard multiple managers respond to the request by saying, “It’s all a priority.” This is not helpful to a team struggling to make a project plan work; in fact, it can lead to insufficient upkeep on of that plan and team member frustration.

The ability to give negative feedback in an organization is critical to analyzing project plans and ensuring they are reasonable and executable. When personnel who work within multiple teams or at multiple levels within an organization cannot provide honest feedback, it stifles the planning process and can render the existence of a project plan moot. The team can’t tackle the difficult issues that need to be resolved to rework the plan into something reasonable and executable.

In a similar fashion, how the organization handles stakeholders can affect whether members of a team find value in their project plan. Poor stakeholder management can hinder a team’s ability to engage with stakeholders on and resolve difficult issues.

Here’s How You Can Help

As the PM who is working to help the team to get back on track, your primary mission is to notice the details, care about the details, and ask about the details. Here are some tips:

  • Put resources and tasks in a spreadsheet to add up hours per month
  • Examine the plan as a team or during small-group activity
    • Are the resource allocations too optimistic?
    • Is the critical path accurate? What tasks can be done in parallel?
    • Have tasks been assessed for priority?
    • What are the dependencies between tasks? Are they sufficiently captured?
    • Are dependencies on external personnel and organizations captured?
    • What concerns does the team have?
    • Does the schedule include requests that are outside the original scope? Did those requests come with appropriate schedule and budget consideration?

As you are doing your assessments and forging the path forward, be sure to explain why and then follow through. The team will emulate your behaviors – if you record your action items and follow through, they will, too.

I have known managers who literally said that by the time they finished walking around to meet with team members, they couldn’t “remember half of what (they) promised” when they got back to their office.

To avoid this pitfall, I carry a pad of paper with me when I talk with the team members, and I have a notebook on my desk next to me during virtual calls. Some people assume it will be awkward to pause a conversation to write something down. But I find it is appreciated – your team sees that you are taking their requests and feedback seriously.  This creates an environment where they feel encouraged to bring forward issues.

Give Positive Feedback

Positive feedback matters. In the midst of trying to drive schedule, you can find a myriad negative things to focus on and fix. But the morale of the team relies upon its collective ability to keep perspective during the process; specifically, team members need to know that they are doing good work to move the project in a positive direction. They look to their leader for that perspective and feedback.

The examples below are real. Many managers are uncomfortable giving positive feedback – even more uncomfortable than they are giving negative feedback! One of the results of this discomfort is that their attempts at positive feedback can come across as a self-compliment rather than a sincere and timely thank-you to an employee.

Be sure to pause long enough to ensure you are using a format of “You did well,” instead of accidentally complimenting yourself, as shown in the table below. 

I Did Well


You Did Well

Good thing I asked for that analysis! It found some key issues that I think we should explore further. This should help a lot!


Great job, {name}. You found some key issues that I think we should explore further. This should help a lot!

Ah, good! I knew there were some prioritization issues


Excellent points – are there some of these you would reprioritize?

I scrubbed this resource plan to make it realistic


Thanks for a great planning workshop. Our team has really scrubbed the plan to make it more realistic.


Keep Going…

Wash, rinse, repeat….  On average, it takes four to seven months of steady work on the team culture and project planning to turn around team performance. And it’s exhausting!

Your team needs your energy, enthusiasm, and positivity. I have not found one, single technique that helps provide leadership resiliency in all situations. So, to be successful, you will need to develop your own resiliency cookbook from a variety of techniques. I could spend pages talking about mindset training, meditation, crucial conversations, reframing, and dozens of other techniques. As a PM, you will find it well worth the effort to learn about and try out the depth and breadth of concepts available to help.

Summary Checklist

Driving Schedule:

  • Evaluate team cultural problems, and approach solutions as cultural change instead of status issues
  • Get the team involved with planning
  • Ask critical questions to empower them to find issues and solutions
  • Prioritization means not doing some things – use the parking lot method and mean it
  • Keep your promises
  • Give positive feedback as “You did well”
  • Develop and use your resiliency cookbook – this is a marathon, not a sprint


Additional Resources

Interested in learning more about topics like this one? Check out upcoming events on our chapter calendar. Sign up for one of our upcoming meetings, roundtables, or workshops – a selection of which are virtual. Earn your PDUs through PMI Mile Hi Chapter!

About the Author

Kari Sanders, PMP, MBA, is a speaker, author, consultant, and long-time volunteer with PMI Mile Hi. She presented on this topic during our March 2022 chapter meeting. You can see Kari's profile on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/karisanders


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