The Charter Document – representing the time line
One of your main jobs as a project manager is to convey to the masses, including those paying you, how you expect the project to unfold against the calendar. It sounds simple enough but doing so is fraught with danger. This post is part of a series detailing critical elements of the project charter.
Along with ‘deliverables’ and ‘cost’, ‘time’ is an element of the triple constraint or project cornerstones against which the performance of your project will be judged so your project charter would be incomplete without the inclusion of some kind of calendar of events showing how you expect the project to unfold. The key word here is ‘expect’. A word of warning: In a graphic like a Gantt chart tasks/stages/phases have a very particular start and end date. In reality as the project unfolds you would expect some degree of variance and on it’s own the Gantt chart may well set inappropriate expectations resulting in some unnecessary anxiety during the project.
However you choose to represent your timeline, be it a table of ‘phases’, a Gantt chart or a verbal description, my advice is: Keep it simple! Firstly this is a management communication, not a tool to micromanage project tasks. Do not include detail not relevant to your sponsor’s level of management. Do not include detail that might imply a level of accuracy that you cannot guarantee. Choose your words very carefully. They must reflect the level of confidence you have in the dates that you have given. That the dates change should not be more of a surprise to your sponsors than to you.
I tend to vacillate between ‘Gantt charts are good’ and ‘Gantt charts are evil’. For a while I banned my students from expressing the project timeline in the charter using a Gantt chart because it tends to set unreasonable expectations. I’ve since changed my tune and have gone back to ‘Gantt charts are good’. Remember that the trick with project management documentation is not getting the signature, but getting it read and understood. Lets face it, project documentation can be boring and while your project might be your highest priority and terribly exciting to you, it is one of many issues that your boss/sponsor has to consider. If a coloured graphic in the middle makes it more palatable to the eye, and more likely to be read, then it makes it a more effective communication tool. So include a gantt chart by all means HOWEVER:
Keep it SIMPLE! 3~6 lines is good
Talk about project stages/phases rather than tasks
Prefix the graphic with a line or paragraph to set expectations according to your level of confidence in the given dates. Use words like ‘current expectations’ and ‘time-frames’. If you can’t think of a better way then say it like you mean it, “The project is expected to unfold according the the following timeline. Although there is a high degree of confidence in the end date, some variation in the interim phases is to be expected”.
Include slack time. Be honest about it and discuss it with your sponsors. Whether you show it in the charter’s timeline or not will depend on the political environment in which you’re working but projects seldom unfold exactly as planned. Plan to finish a week early, a month early if you can. If you do, apart from achieving a possible world first, you can spend the final week fine tuning eg your speech for the closing party.