Project planning is a difficult activity.
Everyone wants to know when a project is going to go live (or more realistically they tell you when they want the project to go live), but understanding all of the tasks that need to be completed on the way, how those tasks interact with each other, and when they all need to be completed is a mammoth and complicated challenge.
It’s this complexity that has led to an entire industry being created around the skills of project management, however, within product development there are some simple steps that you can take to support the delivery of work that don’t require the completion of project management certifications.
Starting with the workback schedule.
A workback schedule involves creating a timeline for a project in reverse, starting with the project completion date and working back through all the tasks you need to complete to the point where you determine a project start date.
Workback schedules are ideal support for projects where the completion date is known at the start.
Workback schedules are particularly useful for projects that contain numerous or complex elements because they allow you to:
Let’s say that you’re aiming to deliver a new payment method for your customers and this needs to be in the product release on the 15th of November, ahead of your Black Friday promotion starting. With the workback schedule approach you’ll need to workback from the 15th of November and determine all the steps required to put this new payment method in place (e.g. testing, configuration, specification, contracts, commercial agreements).
If you add up the anticipated time for all those tasks and it totals eight weeks and today is October 1st you can see that on the surface it appears unrealistic to have this project delivered in time for a November 15th release. This can prompt early conversations on how to address this problem.
Project planning is all about planning activities and determining dependencies, deliverables, and delivery dates. Through the application of workback schedules you’re able to provide the different project contributors the milestones they must meet in order to meet the overall project completion.
With our new payment method example, our milestones could look something like this:
As you’re working back from the fixed release date you’re determining the time needed before that from the preceding activity, working through all the tasks needing completion.
As we’ve seen, through workback scheduling you are able to identify unrealistic dates sooner rather than later which allows for there to be conversations around whether elements of the project can be deprioritised in order to meet the immovable deadline.
Our tendency when determining project deliverables is to include as much as possible so that we can receive a greater benefit at the end of the work, however, the workback schedule provides an opportunity to ask yourself what elements of the project are essential for day one and what could be delivered at a later date.
If your workback schedule shows that you won’t meet the deadline with the current anticipated workload you’re forced to ask and answer the question: “What can be done to meet the deadline?”
Once you have your workback schedule in place you can allocate resources to meet the anticipated schedule.
If you need finance to test the new payment method by November 8th, then you’ll need a finance person available prior to the milestone.
If you need a commercial agreement in place by October 11th, then you’ll need the commercial team to have spent the prior weeks working with suppliers and legal teams on reaching a commercial agreement.
To create your own workback schedule there are a few steps to follow, each with their own set of questions to ask yourself:
You can find an example of a workback schedule here:
How you apply workback schedules in your current role will depend on the delivery approach that your organization takes.
Workback schedules can be created based on the individual release dates that you have. For example:
Workback schedules can be created based on the individual deliverables that you are working on. For example:
Regardless of your approach to delivery, workback schedules are useful tools to align stakeholders on deliverables and expectations early on in the process.
As with any project planning attempt, they are only estimates, and there are many factors that can derail the plan, however, it’s better to have a plan that can always be adjusted than to not have a plan at all.
Featured image source: IconScout
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