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Project Processes: Building Real People into Timelines

Incorporating a realistic pace for holding meetings and reviews is one of the best ways to ensure your project timelines work. Add touchpoints as processes to convert idealized vendor or department timelines into people-centric ones.

Project Vendors Only Know Their Worlds

Vendor timelines are usually based on their person-hour expectations plus a slight buffer. Even if they know the work will have to pass through multiple rounds of review, they’ll still give you a very efficient (read optimistic) timeline.

Let’s take a (simplified) visual design project as an example. The firm is going to give you a project plan with 80 hours of work:
simplified visual design process map
This is a pretty good process map for a small visual design project. Based on hours, you’d expect them to be done in a few weeks depending on their resources. It might take longer if they have more projects, but this doesn’t seem too bad.

You Need to Know Your Project Team’s World

In your project plan, you’d probably put in a month plus your own buffer of 7-10 business days depending on how much slack you have. But doing that ignores the realities of scheduling with a CMO that travels frequently and a web team that is in the middle of a major marketing campaign. The visual design firm has given you their timeframe based on their person-hours, but they haven’t (and can’t) know how long it’s going to take to make all the meetings happen.
visual design process with highlighted scheduling problems
All the red tasks are things you’ve got to get scheduled. In a perfect world, you can get meetings every week and move through reviews easily. But in the real world, you are going to have weeks when no one is available whether due to scheduling conflicts or unexpected problems (BTW: be careful about scheduling around Spring Break).

If you worked your timeline based on the month plus 7-10 person-days that I mentioned earlier, then you might make it if meetings aren’t pushed back too far. That said, if more than one meeting slips then you are almost certainly going be late on delivering your visual designs.

The gap between work time (person-hours) and the time it takes to move through all a projects steps is one of the most common pitfalls in project plans. When we put together timelines, our reflex is to think about how long something should take in terms of task time. This reduces the perceived time needed and hides risks. What we really need to do is take time and combine it with our understanding of how an organization works.

Incorporate (Real) People Time into Timelines

The best way to avoid missing deadlines or stressing about late delivery is to combine process time with people time. Process time is the number of hours it takes to turn the input into an output. People time is how long it takes to actually get something done when you have to accommodate schedules and other priorities.

The best way to make sure you adjust for people time is to make that time evident in your timelines and process maps. We’ll use our visual design example to see how this works. If you setup each touchpoint (meetings, review sessions, etc.) as a process step and assign person-days or -hours to getting it done, then you’ll find yourself with a much more realistic timeline. Here’s the visual design process map with the touchpoints broken out:
a process map with time for meetings, review, built in

A few things to note:

  • This view shows just how much I and my client team have to do: for every vendor process there are 2 or 3 processes for us to complete.
  • Notice that I don’t change the person-hours of the vendors: I treat their work time as fixed and budgeted; my goal is to clearly represent my team’s work time on top of that.
  • We don’t move to another vendor process until we approve. This is something that people miss and vendors sometimes try to ignore. The process isn’t done until the PM or the lead exec signs off on each step. This view makes that obvious.

Now that we’ve got this view, we need to attach time to each of our team-processes. It’s sad to say, but I find a week per touchpoint (35 person-hours, 5 person-days) is a good standard. It gives you time to sync-up calendars and prep without anyone feeling like their time is being abused or monopolized. If we add this time in, then we get a very different picture of time needed for the project.
process map with time needed to schedule, prep and attend meetings built in

Even with our buffer of 7-10 days, we were looking at ~150 person-hours with our original timeline. This view shows that we need to prepare for more than double that. 395 person hours is about 11 weeks. I’m not saying that your project will take 11 weeks, but it looks like it will take that many hours spread across your team.

How to Fix Your Project Schedule With Our Visual Design Example

Now that you have a real sense of hours, you can find ways to decrease the time needed for this project to finish. With our example, here are some ideas:

  • You can speed up discovery by packaging all relevant collateral and style guides into something you give the design firm at signing.
  • Maybe you combine the Intro & Kickoff with the Stakeholder Discussions: 1 big 4 hour meeting in one week versus 2 smaller meetings spread over 2 weeks.
  • You might also handle stakeholder input via a questionnaire to get things moving (try it, but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work).
  • You can do design reviews in batches instead seeing it all at once. This lets the vendors work in parallel with you rather than having a finish-to-start dependency
  • You can try to get rid of some meetings entirely. Is there any reason you can’t do 1 or both Concept Reviews via email?
  • You can fully commit a single team member or a pair to the 1st review in both Concept and Template phases. A single person is easier to schedule with and can reduce time from Review 1 to Review 2, assuming they have the skills and knowledge.

People Time is How We Work IRL — it’s Complicated

People time is hard to properly predict, so don’t assume the worst. Remember that the project isn’t being done by one resource (I hope), so you are talking about the time divided by 2, 3 or whatever number of team members you have. Also keep in mind that you could get your meetings lined up with ease and be able to get key decisions made quickly. You won’t know until you start looking at calendars.

The key points here are not to underestimate the time needed and to schedule with an eye toward how meetings and other communication actually gets done.

Published in Project Management Ideas Working Blog

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