Leapfrogging Deadlines

Is it possible to finish projects early and get ahead of deadlines?  I have personally not been able to leapfrog the majority of projects I’ve worked on.  I attribute this to VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) and unrealistic timelines.  As project managers, we have to be the Optimist on the team since that attitude will help get projects across the finish line.  At the same time, we have to be Pessimists since we know VUCA will humble us.  We should leverage our tools and strategies to leapfrog deadlines.

As a project manager and project engineer, I have been given various performance metrics as part of my annual reviews.  One company used hard, black and white goals.  You either achieved the goals or not.  Some companies modify their goals or KPIs during the year based on certain conditions.  There is no right or wrong answer but in my view the focus should be on getting the project done as early as possible.  That is more important than how you will be perceived as a performer.

Photo by Bhawani Shankar kumawat on Pexels.com

Here are some tools that are easy to state but difficult to execute.  The project managers and companies that can leverage these tools will win most of the time.

  • Start sooner:  Well duh…who doesn’t want to start sooner?  Sound easy but few companies do this for several reasons (resources are not available, funds haven’t been budgeted, etc.).  One project I worked on started as a request to fill a market need.  We discussed the opportunity for almost one year before we officially started the project due to lack of resources.  Depending on how critical the project is, be creative and find ways to get the project rolling.  Completing a few tasks may bring new insights to the product requirements and target market that you can expose and attack versus uncovering these insights down the road.
    • Commuting application: If you want to arrive at your destination earlier, leave your house earlier.  We typically overestimate how early we can arrive somewhere but don’t account for traffic, construction, and the assholes who cut you off (VUCA).
  • Establish a dedicated team: Creating the project team is standard practice but most projects I have worked on don’t have formal teams that report to project managers and don’t have people dedicated to the project.  Most of my team members work in different functional groups and their time is mostly spent on Operations and firefighting and not on project tasks.  Having a dedicated team is not a guarantee of success but it gives you a higher probability of success.  You need each team member to focus on their tasks daily and collaborating constantly to help each other succeed.  This is where the Scrum methodology shines but most teams have to borrow resources intermittently.
    • Sports analogy:  A dedicated team is a college football team comprised of eleven individual players that show up with the goal of scoring more points than their opponent.  This football team has starters and second-string players for substitutions.  This football team is most likely not going to win the game if only six players are on the field and the rest decide to grab burgers from the concession stands.  After they eat, three decide to show up for a kickoff return and the other three take naps on the sidelines.  Successful companies figure out ways to make sure all their players are on the field and competing at a high level.
  • Hold onto short-term plans tightly and long-term plans loosely: I recommend reading MCDP 5 Planning by the Marine Corps.  Regarding New Product Development (NPD) projects, focus on executing your one-month to three-months plans.  Plans six months to one year away are targets that will most likely change due to VUCA.  Develop a robust change management process to revise your playbook quickly to recalculate new six-month and twelve-month plans. 
  • Reduce the scope: Spend the extra time during scope development to determine what is necessary for a project.  It’s easy to request new features on a product.  I’m not entirely opposed to scope creep if it’s the right thing to do, but don’t expect to improve your timeline.
  • Automate decisions with procedures: Some work gets stalled since people do not know what to do.  Hours and months easily pass while people search for answers on how to handle execute a task.  I’ve worked on a project where the testing guidelines for a particular product were not clear (Is the supplier or manufacturer responsible for testing?  Who pays for the testing?  What is the cadence for future testing, etc.).  Defining repeat actions helps a team know what to do.  As procedures are used over time, assess how they can be improved, streamlined and even eliminated.  ISO 9000 is one quality management system to guide how to document processes but companies can certainly set up their own.

Why do these strategies face headwinds?  From Upstream by Dan Heath, most people don’t want to invest resources on problems they can’t see.  We are a reactionary society and jump from one fire to the next.  Governments spend billions improving infrastructure after disasters occur instead of investing to solve the root causes.  Black Swans will appear so we should try to balance allocating resources to mitigate future risks. 

Why is leapfrogging important? 

  • From a business standpoint, launching a product sooner allows for more monthly sales.  If you can spend $5,000 to expedite tooling to help you start manufacturing sooner to gain $50,000 in sales, then do it. 
  • Getting your product to market sooner allows you to start receiving real world feedback from customers to validate your design.  You can make necessary design or manufacturing changes based on customer reviews in March versus November. 
  • Resources can be released to start other projects or fight critical fires.  The longer projects drag on, you are giving competitors a window to catch up or get further ahead.

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