With numerous stakeholders to support and ambitious corporate goals to achieve, project teams sometimes fall into the trap of over-committing themselves as they try to make everyone happy. Some agree to aggressive schedules in hopes they can shave time off along the way. Others begin projects with a too-lean budget expecting they will somehow keep expenditures below normal levels. In each case, the team usually ends up looking bad in the end, as the project’s target completion date encounters delays and requests for additional funds pile up.
A number of negative impacts can arise when project groups over-commit. The team’s reputation often takes a hit if projects are delivered late or over budget. Longer term, future projects could also face problems as a result. If the leadership team uses approved budgets from past projects to determine future spending, PMs may find themselves routinely under-funded. Even more damaging is the risk that strategic goals could be missed or that the company’s bottom line could suffer if the project fails to deliver the expected results.
Fortunately, a few key strategies can help even very busy project teams stop the cycle of over-commitment and ensure they’re able to keep the promises they make.
Eliminate assumptions. One important step in avoiding the risks of over-commitment is to stop making assumptions about crucial project issues and instead commit to conducting robust due diligence during the planning phase. It’s tempting to assume that historical information—about customer trends, production capabilities, operational workflows, staffing levels, equipment requirements, vendor availability, etc.—can be cleanly applied to the current project. This could lead to serious problems if the existing data is incomplete or obsolete. Delays and additional expenditures are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential risks. Depending on how (and how badly) those initial assumptions are off target, the project could ultimately be a failure if it can’t deliver the expected productivity gains or cost savings as a result.
Gather the right information early in the process. It’s often the things your project team doesn’t know that end up causing grief in the long run. That’s why it’s imperative the right data is collected and evaluated during the early planning phases of the project. Begin by asking a lot of open-ended questions and listen carefully to the responses. Where do team members see potential risks? How can lessons learned from past efforts be applied to the current endeavor? What sort of benchmarking data would be most useful and are there alternative information resources that might provide the team with better insight? Cast your net far and wide by consulting with in-house experts as well as outside specialists familiar with your industry and the type of project you’re executing.
Be realistic when assessing your team’s resources. Not only do PMs need to establish resource requirements for each activity along the project’s timeline, they must also be candid when evaluating how much time, funding, expertise, personnel, and materials will be available to carry out those efforts. Are other projects occupying team members’ time? Seemingly good plans quickly fall apart if tasks aren’t given adequate attention. If issues arise once the project is underway, can the team develop and implement solutions without assistance? An honest assessment of what is possible using in-house resources is critical. Project managers may over-commit because they assume they can tackle most challenging tasks using internal resources, only to discover they must wait for help from an outside expert to resolve the situation. Over-estimating resource availability and under-estimating where risks lurk can both lead a team to promise more than it can deliver.