Why identifying software project schedule risks is essential

Developing the schedule for a software project, especially one that is complex, may seem like a task equivalent to predicting when the stock market has reached bottom. That’s one of the best reasons I know for using predictive scheduling with frequent status monitoring and dependencies built in. But, I digress. Let’s say you are relatively new to the PM biz and you have been tasked with developing a software project schedule from scratch. How do you protect yourself, your team, and your organization from the risks inherent in this speculative venture?

In the best of all worlds, you will have an organizational history of developing similar software or solutions, a performance track record for the team members, and lessons learned from other projects. If any of this information is available, it gives you a solid foundation to begin identifying your project schedule risks and defending your estimates. Frequently, however, there is no good historical information to give you a leg up.  Your predecessor did not keep records or the organization didn’t value saving the history.  So you look at number of modules, estimated function points or how many lines of code need to be written, tested, and integrated. Then, you consider what potential risks must you account for in the schedule?  This is a key item for the project manager, because these are the things that will derail the project or cause all of the estimates to be woefully wrong.

What are some real world events that create schedule risks?
This list is not comprehensive and all of these will not happen on all projects. However, some of these events are likely to happen at some time during your project execution.  Therefore you should accommodate them in your risk management plan. (You do have a risk management plan, right?)

  • Coming up to speed on the customer’s problem so the solution fits their operating environment and expectations (Sometimes known as startup time risk)
  • Time required to learn and develop proficiency in new software tools, languages, hardware, or testing techniques (Also known as learning curve risk)
  • Delays in receiving hardware or software—“The memory board must be lost in the mail”; “Our shipping clerk is on maternity leave.”; “We can’t find your order.”; “Our computer system is down.” (Also known as the Murphy law)
  • Loss of a key team member
  • Finding and training new team member
  • Your partners are late delivering their pieces of the project
  • Disruptive team member
  • Shaking the bird cage—corporate reorganization, moving offices, acquiring a new company or being acquired (Also known as the Annual Corporate event)
  • Interruptions from other critical, but not project related, tasks (One example is the holiday and vacation time in December)

Here is a bit of wisdom about scheduling and risk from the Herding Cats blog (“The Five Easy Pieces”)

  1. Hope is not a strategy
  2. All point estimates are wrong 
  3. Without integrating Cost, Schedule and Technical Performance you’re driving in the rear view mirror
  4. Without a model for risk management, you’re driving in the dark with the headlights turn off
  5. Risk Communication is everything

So, if you are now sufficiently worried, how should you identify and manage software development schedule risks?

Brainstorm. As a new project manager, you may not be comfortable trying to identify all the schedule risks on your project. So, pull your key team members together for a brainstorming session. Create what-if scenarios. Talk about what can go wrong. Develop a plan to deal with these risks.

Seek out training. Make sure all members of your team are up to speed on the software tools and operating environment. Work with HR or senior management to offer classes or consultation to improve developer’s skills before you have to rely on them to produce within schedule constraints.

Do your homework. The Project Management Institute offers A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK for short) for about $50 (less for members) covering all aspects of program management including risk management strategies. Or, you can get an extension of PMBOK from the Department of Defense  as a PDF download. You want to check out Chapter 11.   There are also good blog posts full of tips on the web like Randy McGowan’s post at ProjectSmart.

Keep communication lines open. Not wanting to hear bad news is a trait we all share. But, as the project manager, you need to know the risks your project faces and you want to know when someone on your team is concerned about achieving the planned schedule. Also, your senior managers do not like surprises. Keep them informed of your potential risks and always have a plan to deal with it, because they will ask.

I feel strongly that it doesn’t take fancy tools and teams of people to manage risks—it just requires some forethought and planning to address risk as a part of any project schedule.  Some of you might smile and call this “common sense.”

What do you think?  Leave a comment with ideas you have on managing schedule risk.


The value of keeping a “to stop” list

If you are like me, I use a “to do” list all the time. Time management for a project manager is crucial to their success. Only it feels like it is not working for me these days! I have read some great posts on how to improve what you do, like Harry Jones’ post at his blog or Matthew Cornell’s post on “do, Don’t do, Stop Doing”. But recently a long time mentor of mine gave me some excellent advice on how to help make your hectic schedule a bit less hectic and better controlled. I would like to share it with you.

  The More Effective “To Do” List: The “To Stop” List


Article by Herb Rubenstein, President, Sustainable Business Group


The “to do” list is a staple of executives, house wives, college students, and even elementary school students whose parents have drilled into their heads staying “on task.” Thanks to a webinar by Marshall Goldsmith, this article provides key insights into a potentially very effective complement to the “to do” list.  This is the “to stop” list.

The basic premise of the “to stop” list is that people today are very busy.  They multi-task, have challenges delegating tasks because they don’t have time to get organized enough to hand off some of their “to do” lists in an effective manner to others.  People want to do different things, but don’t have time to do them.  The goal of the “to stop” list is simple.  It is to help people in an organized manner begin to eliminate activities that are taking their time, but are no longer producing sufficient value or enjoyment to merit filling up our days and nights. The theory is simple.  An excellent way to make room in our busy schedules, or “make time” as some people like to say, for new or different activities, or activities we never seem to get to, is to eliminate some of the activities that have been regularly taking our time up to this point.

The Approach

Creating a “to stop” list is actually pretty easy.  It can start as simply as foods you no longer find useful to eat. In some ways it works just like a “to do” list, except in “reverse.”  Most people do not always complete everything on their “to do” list.  Similarly, you, in all likelihood, will not stop everything completely on your “to stop” list.  Some people respond better when someone, or especially, when they themselves, tell themselves to stop something rather than being told, or telling themselves, to do something.

The “to stop” list can be created and executed at the individual level, the family level, or at the organizational level.  The “to stop” list can successfully change a culture in an organization where discipline is lacking and “anything goes.”  It can create an opportunity for self-examination at whatever level it is implemented, and is needed more and more in our ultra busy and hurried times.

Specific Examples of Typical “To Stop” Items

In addition to putting things you do that are time wasters or not the most effective use of your time, you can actually put certain people on your “to stop” list if spending time with them is not useful or enjoyable.  Do you watch more TV than you think you should, or participate in too many staff meetings that do not contribute to the effectiveness of the organization in which you work?  Of course, if someone is on your “to stop” list, I urge you to be polite to them, but you need not continue to spend inordinate amounts of time with them that is not useful to you, or in your opinion, not beneficial to them.

Items on the “to stop” list may be very specific or include general categories of behavior.  For example, you might put a particular not useful activity like trolling on the internet to find bargains in home furnishings that you don’t really need or just list an item that is broadly applicable like “stop noise in my life.”  Another purpose of the “to stop” list is to have us look at our behavior that has become routine, including our habits, and re-evaluate their usefulness compared to the time they cost us.

In business or organizational life, one small business owner in her first day of writing her “to stop” list decided to stop doing all of the “minimum wage” activities that she was doing.  During the day she wrote down all of these “minimum wage” activities which a clerical assistant or high school or college intern could have performed just as effectively, and through writing down all of these activities, she had created a “job description.”  She posted the job description on several websites and in one week had hired an administrative assistant that freed up ten to fifteen hours of her time a week to do more productive and valuable things to promote her business that only she could perform.  Now she has more time to work “on the business,” rather than spending so much of her time “in the business.”


You can add or subtract items to the “to stop” on a regular or periodic basis.  It is a good practice to review the list at least weekly to see how you are doing in stopping or reducing the amount of time you spend on activities that are not producing value or enjoyment for you or your organization.  At the organizational level, having a discussion or posting items on a blog, list serve, chat room, or sharing ideas on that to stop is a useful exercise that will point out significant time wasters.  There will always be things you have to do because the activity is very important to other people or has some potential for benefit in either the short term or the long term. These items should not be on your “to stop” list.

The “to stop” list at the individual level may lead to your finding ways to delegate or automate tasks, or become much more efficient in completing them.  Overall, a good “to stop” list has the dual benefits of making you and your organizations both more efficient and more effective.  If we could say that about everything in our life, we would be more productive, more satisfied, and less harried.

Finally, to combine your to do list with a to stop list is an excellent combination. In a separate article I write about a third list that completes the package.  It is the “to decide” list.  Combining your “to decide” list, with your to stop list, and your to do list is a three pronged approach that will make you a more effective executive, student, and a person who become not only more decisive, but better at executing your decisions in a timely manner.

About the Author

Herb Rubenstein is the President of Sustainable Business Group a consulting firm to businesses.  The headquarters of the Sustainable Business Group is Denver, Colorado.  He is co-author of Breakthrough, Inc. – High Growth Strategies for Entrepreneurial Organizations (Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 1999. He has his law degree from Georgetown University, his Master of Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a graduate degree in sociology from the University of Bristol in Bristol, England and was a Phi Beta Kappa/Omicron Delta Kappa graduate from Washington and Lee University in 1974.  His email address is herb@sbizgroup.com and he can be reached at 303 910-7961.

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