Why schedules help even when they’re wrong

In an HBR article called The Dirty Secret of Project Management, the author claims the secret is no one believes in their schedules. I don’t agree that it’s a secret, but that’s not the point. Forget whether a schedule is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Even if a project ends up months behind it probably did several important things.

Schedules, no matter how inaccurate they are, can do the following:

  • Schedules encourage commitments. A schedule is a list of tasks and names. To have a schedule means people have said they are promising something. Those promises form bonds between people that create morale, energy and trust. Of course if someone fails to deliver on their promise that breaks trust, but that’s the not necessarily the fault of the schedule itself. Even if everyone is behind schedule, everyone may be working as hard as the can and respect each other for the progress they’re achieving. Sometimes being behind schedule, or sharing the challenge of the schedule, brings a team together.
  • Schedules inspire people to feel part of a whole.  Everyone on a project with a schedule has the same endpoint to look forward to. They can see how their work fits in to something much greater than they could do alone. A schedule also allows people to anticipate challenges in the future, and easily recognize who they need to work with to overcome them.
  • Schedules break abstractions into chunks. A common rule of thumb in software is estimates must be between 1 and 3 days. A work item listed for “20 days” means someone hasn’t thought hard about their commitment. Schedules force people to break fuzzy ideas down into small, thoughtful pieces. And in the breaking down, good thinking begins.
  • Schedules make work trackable. Once you have a list of small work items, with names, it’s possible to track progress. Everyone can see as each unit of work is checked off the list. Even if the pace is behind ‘the schedule’, people have constant feedback on how much closer they are to the goal. Tracking work, and noting dependencies, helps people proactively deal with challenges before they block the  project.

Of course you want an accurate schedule. But even if you don’t have one, schedules provide important things successful projects need.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 2: The Truth About Schedules, From the bestselling book, Making Things Happen.


3 Responses to “Why schedules help even when they’re wrong”

  1. Terry McKenn


    I agree with the sentiments broadly. However one of the issues we have is that the ubiquituous Gantt chart becomes a comfort blanket not only for the project manager, but also for sponsors / execs. But like a comfort blanket, it’s often mostly of emotional, rather than practical, use. Often the things that distrupt a project are hard, if not impossble, to represent on a schedule, but the project ends up being assessed by how it is perceived through the representation in the chart. Of course there is more to a proejct schedule than a Gantt chart, but it does have that strong emotive value in a project…

    1. Scott

      Sure, we agree there. There is no map that ever precisely represents the territory.

      Of course for many projects to even begin someone has to convince everyone otherwise :)

  2. Mike Nitabach

    Schedules also focus the minds of the people responsible for deliverables and motivate diligence and effort. If there is no schedule, then nothing can ever be late, and so why not knock off early and go for a beer?


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