Ask a Project Manager #8: How Do I Protect Myself in a Project Timeline?
Digital project management trainer and consultant Abby Fretz is our resident advice columnist for our second round of Ask a Project Manager, where she and her fellow PMs will to continue get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. In this second column, Abby shares her wisdom on the steps you can take to protect yourself in the familiar event of a project timeline delay...
What's the best way to approach protecting yourself from a project timeline being delayed or postponed once the project has begun, in order to reduce the liability of being attached for longer than agreed upon?
Dear Cautious PM,
Project timeline delays are some of the most common and sneakiest forms of ‘project creep’ we encounter as PMs! Project delays represent an inherent cost to our organizations. Not only do we have to scramble to rearrange our schedules and resourcing and then spend extra time spinning the project back up, the ‘cost of delay’ or ‘opportunity cost’ also means we are unable to start new work, causing our teams to lose out on even more revenue.
The excellent news for you stellar project managers is that you have quite a few tools you can deploy early on in a project to get ahead of delays. You even have contractual tools for handling the pesky details that love to slip past your strongest layers of protection. Agreement protections are relatively easy. Committing to transparent, frequent communication is a lot harder. Let’s talk about both.
Transforming the ‘difficult conversation’
The most meticulous planners often underestimate one powerful approach to avoiding timeline overages – early, friendly communication of expectations.
Entering into agreement with each other at the beginning of a project is exciting and hopeful. You and your stakeholders haven’t yet tested your respective expectations and you both anticipate building something great together (and don’t get me wrong, you likely will!).
If there is a time on a project to start laying the groundwork for what to expect when the unexpected happens, it is now. As humans we tend to wait a bit too long to talk about how to address problems (e.g. after they’ve already happened). As a project lead, it is our duty of care (and a great way to build trust) to align with our client teams about what to expect and how we are going to address change and challenges before they happen.
From the very first (or second or third) project conversation, you as the project lead and the sales team can start openly sharing with and requesting information from each other about how both of your teams work, how decisions will be made, how you will align around project approach (scope, estimates and timeline), and how you handle challenges or misalignment when they happen (and they will). This is your chance to demystify the project process for your client.
Any client who has been through a bad digital project experience will welcome the knowledge that you have a plan for addressing inevitable, unexpected challenges.
Ask for specifics (the research before the research)
Before you do any research or dive into a discovery, find out what factors may be motivating the timing of this project for your client. Does their core team have any time off or holiday breaks? Is their next round of funding based on completion of the first phase of the project? Is this project launch related to the timed launch of one of their products? Now that you have a solid understanding of your client’s motivators, you will negotiate the balance between expectations vs. what is realistic for “building the right thing and building it the right way.”
The discovery phase: not just product research
If you’ve taken SuperHi’s Digital Project Management course, you know we highlight the importance of a paid research and discovery phase prior to signing the full project agreement (and even if you anticipate this being a tough concept for your company or stakeholders to buy into, it’s a crucial one – we’re here to back you up!).
A project discovery and research phase gives you the information you need to build a project strategy, scope, estimate, and timeline.
Just like any good architect would survey the land they are going to be building on, interview their stakeholders to get an understanding of their design ideas, and check with local officials about zoning laws, you as the project team must confirm that you and the client are aligned on what you are building together.
Use your research findings review as one of your first inflection points with the client. This is a prime opportunity to walk through the roles each person will play on the project (including the clients), when you anticipate sharing work and getting feedback, and how each phase (including project handoff and close) will work! Too often our projects drag beyond our estimated end date simply because we have never defined what the final steps look like.
If you do one thing well, let it be the project kickoff
Many teams miss out on one of the first opportunities to build alignment and establish expectations around a project – the kickoff meeting. We blaze through our introductions and are on to next steps in an effort to get the project started quickly rather than investing in it as one of the most important inflection points in the entire project. So how do we use this valuable meeting to ward off all the creeps (scope creep, timeline creep, and more)?!
Establish roles and responsibilities
As a project manager, you will play a crucial role in communicating progress, change, and challenges. Let your client know this right away.
You are doing your job well if you are making sure that the mutual agreements your teams made at the beginning project are being honored and making sure that both opportunities and risks are explored and addressed.
If timelines are at risk, you will let both teams know, and will facilitate finding a solution (including issuing change orders).
Your client or executives may have never been a part of a digital project before, so it is equally as important to communicate the roles and responsibilities they have in making the project successful.
As you prepare for this conversation, think about all the things clients have done to throw your project timelines off.
What can stakeholders do to contribute to a successful project?
Establish their own primary point of contact for the project who will work with you to facilitate scheduling meetings, gather required feedback, and block out time for project tasks
Communicate their team’s schedule and availability and block all required time from their team (you can help them by giving them estimates for how much time will be needed)
Set expectations on their team for who can give feedback and when
Make sure everyone is following communication guidelines and shared channels so that no decisions are made without full alignment from both teams
What might happen on a project that would lead to the need for a change order?
Stakeholders or new voices are added to the project (especially Execs, Boards, and Legal)
Additional functionality needs are discovered
Approvals, payments, or client deliverables are late
Technologies create unintended complexity to development
Project goals or needs change or are misaligned throughout the project
Review your agreement
Though we hope our clients are willing and able to fulfill their roles on a project, our contracts should also detail these expectations as well. The agreement serves as official, legal backing to make required changes to a project should anything not go as planned.
Use the kickoff meeting as an opportunity to review these important pieces of your signed agreement with the full client team.
If possible, do not contractually agree to a hard start date. You want to make sure all agreements are signed, and any initial reservation payments you’ve agreed on are made before getting started on a project. List your start dates as contingent on receiving signature and down payment. This might read, “Start date for the project is two weeks from receipt of first payment or signing of agreement.”
Agreements are built with real risk in mind. We know timeline-related risk is very possible and you should account for it in the agreements you make with clients. The following gems are examples of clauses you can refer to when you encounter client delays or changes that impact scope:
Pause clause: “If any deliverable including assets, turnarounds, approvals, payments, or sign-off is more than [five] business days late, we’ll put the project on hold and restart it as soon as the deliverable is received – based on our schedule and availability.”
Mimic clause: An alternative version of the pause clause, the mimic clause states that “if any deliverable including assets, turnarounds, approvals or sign-off is delayed, all future agreed upon deliverable dates will be extended by the same length (e.g. if design approval is delayed by two days beyond the expected timeline, the project launch date will be extended by two days). If the project launch date is non-negotiable, an increased fee will apply in order to meet your timeline.” [credit to Conlan Seder for this one]
Mystery voices: This clause states that, “All stakeholders who want to have a say in the project direction need to be present from the kickoff. If any new voices are added to the project, we reserve the right to re-evaluate the scope and provide an estimate for any additional time and budget required.” This is to protect the project from the impact of additional voices at the table.
Keep talking: if it’s important, say it again
An effective kickoff meeting, airtight agreement, and thorough discovery phase will help eliminate many of the challenges we have around dragging timelines.
Remember though, if it was important enough to cover in the kickoff meeting it should probably be repeated throughout the project.
How can you create built-in channels throughout a project for transparent updates on progress and risk? How do you continue to honor the project goals and terms you all agreed on at the beginning?
Regular status meetings
Whether you and your stakeholders are following a sprint cadence or have a regular status meeting, reserve a place in your agenda to review not only progress but potential risk and solutions.
When your client sees a section in your status report for risks and challenges updated each week, it gives them a sense of assurance. You can explain that this section will typically be blank but it is there for when anything comes up that could impact the project negatively or take your teams away from the goals of the project. Make talking about risk and potential blockers a normal thing.
If you never talk about risk or a mitigation plan, it will feel big and scary to a project stakeholder or client, especially if the project is already challenging.
If you’ve already acknowledged that things don’t always go according to plan, you will prepare your clients for tough conversations.
By now you have set clear and friendly expectations, explained the cost of delays to your team and stakeholders, and you have made sure to include project delay protections in your project agreements. Remember, this isn’t about expecting perfection from all teams involved. This is about balancing your constraints (time, scope, and cost) in order to build the right thing and build it the right way.
Abby is a digital project management trainer and consultant at Louder Than Ten and is passionate about connecting people interested in digital project management to access to the right set of tools and resources. She has taught Digital Project Management classes for Girl Develop It, guest lectured at University of the Arts’ continuing education program, co-chairs DPM Philly, and mentors people in the field of digital project management.