45royale October 2, 2007

PMGEP Part 3: You got the client, now you need a plan

In Part 2 of the PMGEP (Product Manager’s Guide to Extraordinary Projects) we covered the contract process and the importance of having a signed agreement in place before any work begins. Now that the contract has been signed its time for you and your team to get to work! However, before you start churning out wireframes and Photoshop comps all nimbly bimbly, you need a plan of attack in the form of a project schedule.

Developing and maintaining a schedule is the single most important function of a Product Manager’s job and plays a HUGE role in the success of a project. If you don’t take the time to plan out and set the project’s milestones and delivery dates, it will no doubt lead to confusion between you, your team, and the client. But not to fear! I’m going to show you the process that I use to get every project off on the right foot.

Start with what you know

Before you start throwing random delivery dates on to a calendar, let’s first start with what you know about the project. When is your client’s desired completion date? Most clients have a timetable in mind for their project and it’s likely that date was made clear during the contract phase. Once you have that date, you now know two very important pieces of information that you’ll need when building a schedule; the start date (when the contract was signed) and the end date (upon completion). Now you just need to fill in the gaps!

By now, you probably have all of the requirements in hand since the majority of these (if not all) should be written in to the agreement between you and your client. However if you’re still unclear as to what the client is expecting, now is the time to get the requirements solidified. Assuming you have these things in place, you should have the information you need to begin planning out your schedule. As I think most would agree, a single page contains many layers that need to be addressed before moving on to development. A page needs to be brainstormed, UI’d, wireframed, designed and signed-off on before it can be coded. And since a home page design then typically dictates and influences the look of subsequent interior pages, it’s likely that you’ll be able to plan the secondary pages shortly there after. Simply thinking your way through the requirements and mapping out how to get from A to B will help you put deliverables in the proper order on your project schedule. Once you’ve outlined the order of events, you can then begin filling in delivery dates for each item. But how long does it take to complete each of the tasks you’ve put on your schedule?

Trying to allot the proper amount of time per task is important since there are many variables that could possibly affect completion time. You need to factor in not only time spent doing the work, but also time for client feedback and subsequent revisions. We’d all love it if we nailed a design on the first try, but you can’t expect that to happen every time. You have to allow time for dialog between you and your client and build in extra hours to make changes to your work based on those conversations. If you’re not sure how long a particular task will take you, heck even if you do know, try and add in more time for completion of that deliverable. Believe me, your client won’t be upset if you over estimated and deliver early, but you can bet you’ll be getting an earful about it if you miss a deadline that YOU set!

The client impact

Even though your team will be responsible for most of the deliverables, it is important that you don’t forget to assign your client their own “homework” as well. If they take a look at your project schedule and don’t see their name anywhere, they might be more likely to go into cruise control mode thinking that your team has it all covered. A client needs to know that the success of a project depends just as much on their involvement as it does yours. Timely feedback, project priority checks and constant communication are all responsibilities of a good client. If they fail to meet a milestone assigned to them, they need to understand that it could negatively impact a deliverable scheduled down the line; which could potentially push back their desired launch date and completion. Keep in mind that if you don’t assign your client any action items and they fail to provide the feedback you need, you will have a very difficult time trying to explain that the deadline you missed was anyone’s fault but your own.

Review, review, and review some more

At this point you should have a pretty concrete schedule outlined, but you aren’t quite ready to send it over to your client. Even though you can become quite familiar with how long a given task usually takes the team, it’s always important that you review your schedule internally before unveiling your timeline to the client. Your team of designers and developers may be more familiar with the intimate details of a deliverable and can point out that it may take significantly more time to complete than you’ve allocated. Take this juncture to collaborate and make necessary adjustments since it will be far much harder to backtrack once the project schedule has been finalized.

Also, now is not the time to forget about your other clients! Many firms carry more than one client at a time and many have the same resources working on both projects. Be sure that you review your other project’s schedules to make absolutely sure that you haven’t “double-booked” your teammates by giving them two major action items that are due on the same day. Spacing out delivery dates between projects can not only lessen the stress levels of your team members, but can give you a slight cushion if something goes wrong on one project and you need to temporarily shift your resources to another project.

For all the world to see

Once you’ve dotted all of your i’s and crossed all of your t’s, it’s time to send your schedule to the client for review and sign-off. They may suggest additional edits which could send you back to the drawing board, but their input is vital to forming an extraordinary schedule that will put your project on the fast track to success. When everyone agrees on the final schedule, I recommend putting the milestones and delivery dates on to a calendar that everyone can access. Whether you use something like Basecamp or a Google Calendar, having the schedule in a central location will allow everyone to check up on the project if they have a question about when something is due or what’s next on the agenda.

I also recommend that you review the schedule at various points throughout the life cycle of the project. Just because everyone can access the schedule doesn’t mean they actually read it! Typically I like to review the project schedule in detail on a kick-off call at the beginning of the project, and then after each major milestone. That way there is very little chance that something will be missed or that someone isn’t aware of what is expected of them.

Be like water

There is a famous quote by the legendary Bruce Lee that reads, “If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” In short, what he’s saying is that you have to be willing to adapt to situations and environments if you want to succeed.

"If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend."
— Bruce Lee

This kung-fu metaphor speaks volumes of the importance of maintaining your schedule once it has been put in place. Things happen over the course of a project that can throw your carefully laid plans out of whack. Requirements change and unforeseen snags can take longer than expected to resolve. While it is important to stick to the schedule and drive toward your goals, you can’t be afraid to rework your schedule if the project landscape changes. If this happens, be sure to set a new schedule that fits the new requirements. Don’t just start plugging away at the old deliverables knowing that the dates are no longer valid. Wash away the confusion by being proactive and make the necessary adjustments the project requires. Be like water.

And another one…

Hopefully this article has given you some good advice on how to set your next project schedule. While everything most likely won’t go according to plan, the important thing is that you are constantly thinking about the plan and working towards set goals. But remember, a schedule is just the road map, you still have to stay behind the wheel and steer. It’s up to you to do your best and put your team and the project in a position to succeed. That’s right, now drop and give me 50!

Be on the lookout for Part 4 of the PGMEP where we’ll take a look at time tracking and how starting to watch the clock now can help you and your team on future projects!

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