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Project Constraints: Time

written by: Joe Taylor Jr. • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 7/6/2011

Time is the only project constraint over which managers hold no control. Unlike costs, which can be constrained, or scope, which can be adjusted, time always flows at a steady pace.

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    The Ticking Clock

    Without the luxury of slowing or stopping time, project managers must resort to tracking their teams’ progress against a series of milestones. In the very best cases, stakeholders and project leaders can accurately project the amount of time required for teams to meet their goals under expected conditions. Handling unexpected challenges under tight deadlines is what sets expert project management professionals apart from their competition.

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    Challenge #1: Inaccurate Predictions

    Sometimes, project stakeholders are simply too optimistic about the amount of time it takes for team members to complete their tasks. In other cases, physical resources like manufacturing or parts deliveries might take longer than expected to arrive on site. Clever project managers build buffers and other contingency schedules into their original plans to help prevent the negative effects of bad guesses.

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    Challenge #2: Waning Motivation

    In longer term projects, team members may find themselves feeling burned out or confused. Likewise, short term projects may feel repetitive or even meaningless to some team members. Project managers must act as leaders to reconnect their teams with the passion and energy that helped launch the initiative in the first place.

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    Challenge #3: Outside Interference

    When team members become ill or sudden staff changes require additional time for training and deployment, project managers can find their schedules under assault. Most of the time, the effects of outside interference can be mitigated with the same kind of overrun buffers used for dealing with inaccurate projections. However, outside forces tend to require more hands-on intervention, which adds costs and threatens deadlines. Savvy project managers find ways to build cost buffers as well as time buffers into their project plans. In addition, separating project goals into a list of “need to have” and “nice to have” items can prepare teams for the reality of leaving some tasks off the completed list.

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    Putting Time Back on Your Side

    Many project management professionals consider time the most difficult of the three project constraints to work around. Many of the immediate remedies to missed deadlines require dropping items from to-do lists, affecting scope. Other potential fixes require overtime or extra staff, affecting costs.

    In addition to the specific tips above, veteran project management professionals recommend spending extra time tracking the relationships and dependencies among task items. In many cases, tasks can be “fast-tracked,” allowing for completion of multiple portions of a project at the same time. When planned correctly, tasks can be rescheduled concurrently by adjusting staff schedules without necessarily causing overtime. Shifting a few work sessions around to get caught up quickly can help projects get back on track before they cascade out of control.

Working with Project Constraints

In this five-part series, we examine three classic project constraints encountered by project management professionals, along with ways to turn them into strategic advantages.
  1. Working with Project Constraints - The PM Triangle
  2. Project Constraints: Scope
  3. Project Constraints: Time
  4. Project Constraints: Cost
  5. Getting Real With Project Constraints