Tasks and timelines: The keys to successful project management

When you're in charge of a project, you need more than trust and team members' promises of being "on track"

Dear Bob ...

I recently attended one of your speeches -- you titled it "Don't trust 'Trusting your gut.'" I liked what you had to say about evidence-based decison-making and how superior it is to trusting your gut.

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My question: How do I apply this to my work as a project manager? I'm fairly new at this, and your speech crystalized something I've been uncomfortable with in the project I'm managing. What it is, is that when I check in with project team members to ask them whether they're on track, they tell me they are -- and that's all they tell me.

I'm concerned that if I push them, it will come across as a lack of trust, which will damage our working relationship. But if I don't push them, I don't really have any evidence that they're actually on track.

What do you recommend?

- Newbie

Dear Newbie ...

Here's what's happening: You're asking a vague question, and in response you're getting a vague answer.

Where it starts is the project schedule. The guideline: Project tasks should take no longer than you're willing to have the project slip without knowing about it. If project tasks are a month long, the project can slip a month before you find out. If they're a week long, the project can't slip more than a week before you find out.

The reason it works this way is that many of the people who are responsible for project tasks are optimists. When they're in the middle of a task and you ask if they're on track, they'll tell you they are because they believe they are -- whether or not they actually are.

Which leads to a second guideline: There is no such thing as "on track." There also is no such thing as "percent complete" when the question is progress on a single task.

Keep tasks to one week or shorter. Every week, when you ask about the status of project tasks that are scheduled to be complete, the only answers are that they are complete, or they aren't complete. Ninety percent done means not done -- likewise 25 percent done and 95 percent done. They're all at the same stage of completeness: not done.

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