Slush in the Schedule

It’s snowing as I write this. Of course, these days that means I could be writing this article almost anytime. In the last three weeks, we’ve had some 7 feet of snow, or maybe 8, in the Boston area. That makes for a lot of snowmen! It also makes for a lot of slush in people’s schedules. It’s no wonder that the police in one New Hampshire town issued an arrest warrant for Punxsutawney Phil.

In fact, this sort of weather really makes a dramatic point about just how hard it can be to plan and schedule just about anything. A couple of blizzards and it’s amazing how disrupted everything becomes.

Schedules are a funny thing. When I was giving a workshop a few years ago on project management, one of the people in the audience became quite irate when I suggested that the point of a schedule is not to make sure that you optimize every minute, but rather that a schedule exists to prevent us from trying to do everything all at once.

This person insisted that it was possible to precisely calculate the amount of time that each step of the schedule would take and thus there was no need to waste any time. Had this actually worked for him? Well, it turns out that he was (in)famous for missing deadlines and burning out his teams trying to hit arbitrary targets. No matter how precisely he tried to calculate the schedule, something would always derail it: the flu has no respect for precision. Once a tight schedule is disrupted, it can easily become a game of falling dominos.

In the end, the goal is to beat the schedule, not create a schedule that beats you. It’s quite amazing: when we’re ahead of schedule, we are simultaneously more relaxed and more energized. We focus better and come up with more creative solutions to problems. Unexpected obstacles are fun challenges. When we are behind schedule, we feel rushed. Every delay feels like a crisis. We take shortcuts and make more mistakes, which, in turn, only further disrupts the schedule.

The secret, it turns out, to effective schedules is not to try to be extremely precise, but rather to recognize that your schedule will need some slush. Things do not always happen when they are supposed to: some things will go faster than expected, and others will go more slowly. The goal is to be able to adapt to that: when the US military started conducting war games with the Japanese, the hardest thing for the Japanese military was that US forces wouldn’t attack on time. Sometimes they were early, sometimes they were late. This was very frustrating for the Japanese, who were used to extreme precision in their war games. Eventually, they figured out the lesson: warfare doesn’t happen on a clock.

When you’re building your schedule, don’t just estimate how long something will take. Break down each task, think about the different moving pieces involved. Consider which pieces can be disrupted by someone getting the flu or by a freak storm. Where are you implementing a known and tested solution and where are you trying something new and different? Exploration will always take longer if only because you don’t know ahead of time what you’re getting into: Boston’s famous Big Dig certainly had its share of bad planning, but it also had its share of discovering that the problems being solved were much bigger and more difficult than anyone expected.

As I explained to someone very recently, always put breaks in the schedule. As every endurance athlete learns, mostly by ignoring this advice, you need to stop and rest periodically. When you decide to skip a rest or a meal break, you set yourself up for failure. Just as the silence between the notes is what makes the music, it is the breaks in the schedule that enable the team to maintain high productivity over the long term.

Take time in your schedule as well to put in checkpoints to evaluate progress. That doesn’t mean fighting about why something didn’t get done, but rather to understand what is working and what is not. Make adjustments and shift resources as necessary: part of good scheduling is the ongoing process of refining the schedule.

But what about 8 feet of snow? Surely no one can plan for weather conditions like that! Of course not, but that’s not the point. When we are used to the idea that schedules need regular tune-ups and adjustments, when we recognize that unexpected obstacles are just part of the job, then it becomes easier to role with whatever storms arise. The blizzard isn’t a crisis, it’s just a more dramatic version of business as usual.

Are you beating the schedule or is the schedule beating you?

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