Backward Scheduling for the Masses

By: Alec Talan


The more your team shares the same understanding about the objectives of your project, the less risk you carry. The wisdom of crowds has a place in driving project success because the more every team member is aligned to the common purpose, the more they’ll think about potential failure points, cross-functional breaks, dependency failures, etc., rather than working in silos. And that, in turn, minimizes the risk of everything going off the rails.

But how do you get as many people as possible—each with his or her own point of view and priorities—to see the big picture?

Start with go-live and work backward.

Backward Scheduling and Forward Contingency Planning

Project managers often tout the benefit of forward planning. Planning forward is great, but backward scheduling helps you identify potential problem areas before you begin. The best balance is a combination of the two. How do you do that?

Step 1. Start with go-live. Backward plan to now. What needs to happen before what to get to that go-live target? Some work duration will be fixed—like the fact that training should always happen right before go-live and you’re never going to get more than the bare minimum time allocation from line management—and others will be highly dynamic—like which features get deployed in which release or how many testing cycles you’ll end up having based on the quality of the build. 

Plan backward conservatively; build into every phase some contingency buffer to act as a shock absorber. Besides, leadership will likely ask you to shorten your deployment plan anyway, so you better have something safe to cut. 

Step 2. Get leaders involved. Show them you’ve done the legwork to understand what needs to be done to complete each phase in a certain timeframe. The more information you can provide to leaders, the more confident and supportive they will be of the project.

Step 3. Make a point of asking leaders to look for landmines. It’s important to ask your leaders questions like: what could go wrong at every critical phase? Are there other competing initiatives that you’re not privy to? Are there resource constraints you need to know about? 

Ask for buy-in and put the deliberation on leadership about what they think may cause explosions. After all, the buck stops with them so they need to be collaborators.

Step 4. Create contingency plans for every reasonable breakpoint (and then some). Keep running various forward-looking failure scenarios and backward plan against each to determine which of the potential failure paths your overall plan is robust enough to absorb and which it cannot. Do this monthly, incessantly, to keep fault testing the critical path to maintain an understanding of where you need to focus your defenses and where you can strategically fall back or inflect. 

Step 5. Have visual aids. Any plan that exists solely in an ivory tower is useless. The goal is to have the plan internalized by as many team members as possible. To do this you need to speak the language of each audience. Reduce complex information to easily understand visual representations that have traction to ensure everyone gloms onto difficult concepts and stays engaged. 

As much as possible have multiple ways to represent especially complex concepts, because different people process information in different ways, and seeing the same thing from different vantage points only helps to elucidate its meaning. 

Communicate the Plan

Often, no one wants to give a detailed timeline outside the PMO because if there are misses, word spreads that the project is at risk. The biggest hurdle is overcoming the fear of communicating details that may be used against you. But if you’re scared to tell what the plan looks like…you may not have a workable plan. It may not be attainable because it doesn’t offer enough flexibility to survive issues, delays, or changes to circumstances. If there are political reasons to avoid sharing your plan, you need to huddle and get the right leaders involved because this is a red flag that you don’t have the wind at your back…yet. 

You need respect, confidence, and the ability to explain that things are flexible in the project, and there are many ways to reach objectives. Make sure you give a high-level plan to the entire team on the project. Everyone needs to be marching to the same tune, following the same map.

Next, use a customized approach to give each team relevant information, as they typically won’t pay attention to details that they aren’t involved with. Give targeted 30, 60, and 90-day views for each workthread every month, and help people own their cross-dependencies at each view. Often the starting position may be that each team doesn’t naturally care about their impact on others, but they need to understand that they are accountable to one other. They are partners. Your success is tied. You succeed together or you fail together.

Also, always ask for feedback! The people on the front line may have information that the leadership team doesn’t. Sincerely asking for feedback also gets everyone’s fingerprints on the plan. This is not “my plan;” it’s “our plan,” and that should be the message you communicate throughout the project. Sincerity is the key here as token gestures will not break through people’s discomfort, anxiety, or whatever other reason they may have to harbor a reservation communicating negative information upward. Get buy-in and co-ownership from each team so you have a cohesive front.

Look Backward to Move Forward

We live in a culture of planning forward, but with projects, that often doesn’t create a realistic timeline for the inevitable failure points. Instead, backward scheduling—to validate means-ends-coherence and then communicate that plan in a way that is relevant and engaging to every team member—is imperative for building out a more robust management approach because it creates a common understanding and instills a common sense of purpose.