Author: Fergus

Need More Contingency? Run a Fast Project!

Need More Contingency? Run a Fast Project!

Of the many benefits of running a fast project, a somewhat unexpected one is what it can do to your store of contingency.

Contingency is one of the more troubled areas of project management. Sensible industries – such as construction, for example, or filmmaking – expect to see contingency in a plan. Then, there are industries – most high tech industries are guilty here – where if bosses or customers or project stakeholders see contingency in a plan, they’re more than likely to take a red pen to it, draw a line through it and say, ‘Well that can come out for starters’.

But contingency is essential in a plan. It’s essential because it’s tied to the crucial question of change control.

When a change occurs on a project there are only ever three ways you can respond to that change:

  1. You can say, ‘Hey, that’s a big change. That’s not what we originally agreed.’ Changes to project scope, changes to resourcing and assumptions turning out not to be true – these are big changes.
  2. If something isn’t a big change, you can use the contingency (provided you have some).
  3. If something is a big change, but you don’t have the guts to say that to the people for whom you’re doing the project, and there’s no contingency in the plan, either because you never put it in in the first place or you did, but then some idiot took it out and you didn’t stop them, there’s only one other possibility when changes occur and – quite simply – that’s to suck it up. Work nights, work weekends, bring work home with you, phone up your significant other and say ‘give my dinner to the dog, I won’t be home tonight’ and so on.

If you have no contingency in your plan, you’re reduced to two options – either something’s a big change or you’re going to have to suck it up. To put that another way, your plan can now only succeed with some level of sucking it up. The problem with that, of course, is that there’s a limit to how much sucking it up you can do. There are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in the week, and a finite number of people on your team.

All of which brings me to running a fast project. One of the really nifty by-products of running a fast project is that it generates contingency. Each day you save is a day you can add to your store of contingency. This has four effects:

  • If you started out with no contingency, you now suddenly have some.
  • It reduces the likelihood that your project is going to run late.
  • It gives you more wiggle room if you get unexpected surprises late in the project.
  • It means that when some unexpected big change does occur – especially late in the project – you may be able to say to your stakeholders that this is one you can ‘absorb’ i.e. you’re not going to hit them with a big change.

It used to be that there were only two options where contingency was concerned – put in explicitly (and run the risk of the stakeholders whipping it out) or hide it so they couldn’t find it. With fast projects you have a third option – you can generate it as the project unfolds. Nice!

Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Picture this. There is a small / medium-sized high tech project running in your organization. Let’s say it’s an average of ten people for six months. In other words it’s five person-years. While costs vary considerably, the typical cost of such a project in Western Europe or the U.S. might be in the range $ 12,000 – $ 15,000 per day.

I think you’ll agree that such projects fail all the time. And bigger ones and smaller ones. And, if not fail, then run late or over budget (sometimes dramatically so.)

Now imagine that, instead of the project costing say, $ 12,000 per day it was costing ten times that. Or twenty times. Or fifty times. Would you behave any differently than you do?

Well, why don’t we look at an industry where projects do cost ten or twenty of fifty times that per day and see what we can learn?

The movie industry is one where very expensive projects are planned and executed. While there have been famous examples of movies that have gone spectacularly over-budget (Cleopatra, Ryan’s Daughter, Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld) these days, movies get shot with a precision that would keep any CPA happy.

A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with Phyllida Lloyd, the woman who directed the movie, Mama Mia. In the course of the interview she happened to say, ‘It was a seventy nine day shoot’. Now, when’s the last time you heard one of your project managers say, ‘It was a seventy nine day project’? The language used is interesting because you get the impression that if you asked the makers of Mama Mia what they did on day forty two, for example, they could tell you. And they could tell you. Because long before they began shooting the movie, somebody figured it out. Contrast that with our kinds of projects where we’re often slapping our forehead and saying, ‘How could it be Friday already and where did the week go?’

Filmmakers are completely focused on (a) spending each day wisely and (b) keeping the number of days as short as possible. There’s a very simple reason for this. It’s because shooting movies is so expensive. Filmmakers care because of the huge expense that any little delay or wasted time can involve.

So they spend their days wisely. The most obvious way we can see this is when we look at the way filmmakers plan their projects. Filmmakers build what is known as a shooting schedule. You can think of a shooting schedule as being like a giant spreadsheet. In the rows of the spreadsheet are the days of the shoot. The first series of columns contain a column for every member of the cast from the major stars down to the smallest bit part actor. Essentially, an ‘x’ in a cell means that we need that particular actor on that particular day.

After the cast, there are another series of columns for all the other things that might be needed – props, special effects, animals, vehicles and so on. Then each cell contains exactly what we need on that day under that heading.

In essence – they plan at the day level of detail. They view each day as being precious and irreplaceable. Once gone, that day will never come round again. Contrast that with our kinds of projects. We build a not particularly well-estimated Gantt Chart using something like Microsoft Project and then hurry on to start doing the fun stuff – the real work. Often, the best that can be said about such plans is that they are optimistic hopes for the future. We look at them wistfully and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it turned out like that?’

Filmmakers care about their days. We don’t care enough.

So if you work in an industry where time means money, where every day the project runs early is money in the bank, then plan it at the day level of detail. Care about what happens to your days. Spend them wisely. They are irreplaceable.