Flexible Project Management: What to Do When Nothing Goes According to Plan

Today's complex problems rarely have a clear solution outlined from the beginning.

Team working on flexibility around the table.

At 10,000ft, we build software based on the reality that "nothing ever happens according to the plan", but this isn't due to poor planning. We acknowledge that today's problems are often far more complex and rarely have a clear solution outlined from the beginning. Whether your projects are for external clients or internal stakeholders, if the problem is ambiguous, you need a tool that's flexible enough to help you work through that process.

Let's take an example project with a big open objective: you're hired to help design a program to get kids to eat more vegetables. This is a big, gnarly problem that could have hundreds of outcomes and hundreds of ways to get there. That said, the process to get there surely involves research, critical thinking, and iteration. You need a tool like 10,000ft to help you work through those pieces to deliver the best solution possible.

We've outlined five steps below for using 10,000ft to tackle projects that never happen according to the plan.

1. Set the constraints

Every project has constraints, and these constraints drive the direction of the work and define successful outcomes. For professional services organizations, a successful outcome often means making the most profit from the client with the best work and the most team satisfaction. In 10,000ft, these constraints are time, money, and talent. Our goal is to help you balance the three constraints across your whole portfolio.

How to set project constraints:

1. Create a new project from the Project Portfolio Page in the app.

2. Define the project name and client.

3. Time: Set the project start and end date to set some bookends for project completion. Don’t worry if this is a guess - you can always change the project later on.

4. Fees: If you bill external clients for your services or if you want measure internal cost for a project, you'll want to set up project fees and bill rates for each person.

5. Deliverables: Using phases and tasks, you can outline the requirements. These can also be changed as needed.

Example: I have a project that I think will start on May 1 and end June 1. I think this project will cost about €100,000 and have a series of bill rates that include cost, overhead, and markup for each person. I also think this project will have 4 phases and include about 50 to-do items spread across the team.

Pro Tip: If you don’t know what your fee will be yet, you can always start a project with a fee of zero and let 10,000ft generate the fee for you when you add team members to the project. You can read more about creating project estimates here.

How to Set Team Member Constraints

Your team also has constraints in its limited experience and availability. To manage this, you should organize the team into Disciplines (departments) and Roles (level of expertise). This way, you can easily see who's on the Strategy team and who is a Lead.

On each team member's profile, you can also define available hours (eg. 40 hours per week or part-time three days per week). This allows you to manage availability and utilization on the Schedule. In addition to the fixed metrics in the app, you can define Custom Fields for team members to see Skills, Certifications, Languages, Employment Type, etc. All of these properties help to align and quickly find the best available talent for your projects.

2. Open channels for communication

10,000ft doesn’t replace real conversations in the workplace, nor do we strive to do this.

However, we do strive to make information available to the team so everyone knows his or her expectations and can bring up concerns as needed. We also seek to surface important project information so that all team members can make basic decisions autonomously about how they spend their time and what they work on.

When starting a project, we recommend starting with a kick off meeting where you show the project page timeline, budget (if appropriate), phases, and tasks. Share the constraints with the team and encourage them to communicate if they anticipate that they won’t be able to accomplish work according to the plan. All team members will have a personal dashboard to see which projects they should be working on, how much time they have to complete the work, and what core deliverables / tasks they're responsible for.

Make sure to communicate to your team that they should say something if they need to work more or less than the scheduled hours. From there, you can decide how to adjust accordingly based on all of the other factors.

3. Check the project status

Once you have a project started and you've staffed the project with people or placeholders, your project status should be equalized. This means that you have staffed a project up to the budget and that the “Future Scheduled” matches your entire project budget.

As people start to work on the project and track their time, you'll see the hours collected as "Incurred". When a project is on track, your Incurred + Future Scheduled = Budget. If you see a project start to dip into the red, it means that you're eating into the margin on the project and need to decide how to adjust your plan.

How to use the project status:

1. Set a budget for a project either using Time or Fees

2. Staff the project up to the budget

3. Start tracking time

4. Keep an eye on the project status to make sure the project doesn’t dip too far into the red

5. If the project starts tracking over budget, you can adjust the plan in the future to bring it back on track

Some helpful definitions:

  • Budget = a fixed amount of time or money you set up for the project.
  • Incurred = time or fees already burned on the project. This can come from time sheets (confirmed actuals) or scheduled time in the past (unconfirmed time).
  • Future scheduled = time or fees that are planned for the future by way of assignments. Future is all time from today to the end of project.
  • Remainder = the possible risk for the project if you continue with current plan.

Pro Tip: Set a project budget for each Phase. Use the little down arrow next to the Project Status to review the status for each phase. This might help you see how you worked more on one phase, but made up for it by working less on another.

4. Change the plan when needed

Even the most well-organized plans often go new directions while underway. Below, we've outlined some common reasons why plans change and how to adjust the project plan in 10,000ft to accommodate.

What happens if I need to make changes to the project team?

When someone leaves the company, gets moved to another project, or takes a vacation, you'll need to make adjustments to the staffing for the project. All assignments can be reassigned to other people or placeholders by clicking on the assignment and selecting "reassign". In the menu, you'll see a list of people and can filter the list down to the best replacement by Discipline, Role, Skills etc. You should confirm availability of the new replacement on the Schedule.

What happens if the project goes on hold?

When a project or phase goes on hold, you should Shift the project from the Project Dashboard. Click on the overall project timeline or the phase timeline and select the “Shift” from the menu. You will have the option to pick a new start date for the project or phase. When you save, it will move the whole project or phase into the future along with all the assignments attached. You can continue to move the project as needed until you firm up the timeline or the project is archived.

How to shift a project or phase:

1. On the Project Page, in the Schedule section, click on the bar that represents the project

2. Click "Shift Dates"

3. Select a new start date for the project

4. Hit "Save"

Shifting a project will shift all phases, assignments, and due dates for tasks. When a project goes on hold, you can use the Shift function to open up the schedule of assignments for other project work.

Pro Tip: If the new start date is undefined, you can switch the Project Type to Tentative so the assignments show up as gray on the schedule. Also, if you're using Custom Fields, you can create a Project Status field and mark the project as “On Hold” for future reference.

What happens if my client adds more scope to the work?

Brilliant! You're doing great work and the stakeholder wants to expand the project. If you want to be able to see what work was added, you should create a new phase for the add-service. By adding people to this phase, you will be able to indicate the additional fee for the service and get approval from your client. You can also track time to this phase to measure the effort spent here, even if you don’t end up billing for out-of-scope work.

What happens if we need to redo some of the work?

Even the most talented team, may occasionally need to redo work. In some scenarios, this work should not be billed to the project.

To track this, you should create a phase for a project that is called "Non-Billable" or something similar. In this phase, set the bill rates to zero for each team member. When the team tracks time to this phase, it will be tracked in hours, but not impact the fee budget for the work. Then, when you have conversations with stakeholders, you'll be able to demonstrate how much time was worked on the project and how much of that time will actually be billed.

Pro Tip: if you want to measure project changes against the original plan, make sure you keep the project timeline and fee fixed and only adjust phases and assignments. This will allow you to see how much the project slipped over time.

5. Learn from your metrics

Once a project is complete, you need an easy way to see how you can improve next time. If there was unplanned work, it's important to understand if this was the result of poor scoping, stakeholder changes, team experience, or a mix of all three. 10,000ft allows you to compare planned hours vs. actuals in seconds so you can see precisely where things were different from the expected.

How to compare actual hours spent to planned hours:

On the Project Dashboard for your project, there's a status section showing Time, Fees, and Expenses for the project. Below the status are links to the Time & Fees Report and Budget Reports.

1. Select the Time & Fees report. This will take you into the Analytics section and filter your report for just this client and project. This report will also show you a list of all the team members who reported time on the project.

2. In the “Difference from Past Scheduled” column, you can see all the hours that were unplanned. If this column shows a positive number, it means someone worked more hours than scheduled. A negative number means they worked fewer hours than scheduled.

3. Click on the name of the team member to expand and see the hours for each day. If you notice big discrepancies in this column, you can start asking the right questions.

Pro Tip: If using phases, you can change the first grouping to "Phase Name" and the second grouping to "Resource". This allows you to see how much you budgeted for each phase originally and how much each phase actually took.

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