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The Madness of Starting Point Schedules

Even the most passionate supporter of the CMM and CMMI families of process improvement frameworks can't help but admit that they have caused organisations and individuals to do some pretty stupid things in the desire to achieve a Maturity Level. I also find it interesting how things I once thought of as super cool, now really annoy me, partly because I never really thought through the implications myself, and partly because as I've become more experienced I understand better about how and why these things should never have seen the light of day. One of these things that has been in my mind a lot recently is the project management starting point schedule.

Let's just clarify what I mean by a "starting point schedule". I use the term to refer to an MS-Project template which has a set of predefined entries on a Gannt Chart. It will usually have standardised headers and footers which conform to the organisational standard, and may have some standardised calendars and rates set up in the resources sections.

Why is there a need for such a template? In my experience, quite often, the most significant part of an organisation's initial approach to process improvement is a frenzied effort to create a library of standardised document templates. It's as if they simply think in terms of CMMI as being document oriented (not unreasonable for a novice SEPG who have "achieve CMMI Level 2 by the end of next year" as a goal, and who have learnt that a SCAMPI A appraisal will require the production of thousands of project documents as evidence). If you are going to create templates for all your other project management documents, it kind of makes sense to create a template for a project schedule also. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this approach, I'm just going to focus on my starting point schedule in this post.

So having acknowledged that you are going to create a starting point schedule template for the sake of completeness, the next discussion is usually around the matter of what activities you put in it. And this is often where the first signs of madness manifest themselves. Because it's usually the SEPG who create these templates, they focus on all the process activities, and the initial schedule consists of all the process steps in the quality management system associated with projects. And to make matters worse, the schedule is actually organised by process area. It's as if they are saying to the appraisal team: "look, all the process activities are in the project schedule, therefore it's obvious that they are planned and managed".

The end result of this activity is that our starting point schedule consists of between 100 and 200 activities, not one of which is actually of any value to a project manager who is only interested in delivering product rather than performing process.

But the next bit of madness manifests itself when the Enterprise PMO gets hold of the template. They have to put their imprint on it, and now a set of arbitrary milestones are embedded into the starting point schedule. These enable the PMO to keep an enterprise level view of all projects and programmes so they can see when milestones are missed and can enforce corrective action (!)

Next the accountants and invoicing team get their hands on the template and insist on their work breakdown structures being embedded so that the project activities and the project accounting and billing systems align without anyone in the billing department having to do any work.

By now you have a starting point schedule (which senior management have mandated to be used on all projects) with 500 entries on a Gannt Chart of which not one is actually related to doing any real work in respect to a project delivering a product or outcome.

The starting point schedule is no longer a tool that the project manager can use to track the progress of their project. It has become a noose by which to hang the PM when non-project specific activities are missed out or delayed.

And people wonder why PMs go off and use their own schedules and tools to actually manage what they are paid to do.

The project schedule is a PM tool - it's not an accountancy, billing or invoicing tool. It isn't a workforce management tool, and it most certainly is not a process compliance tool. I agree there are some overlaps, but use the right tools for the right job, especially if you want the job done right.

And a reminder to SEPGs who create the templates - if you want to do it right, you should create the work breakdown structure template first. Let's see you trying to put 200 process activities on a work breakdown structure using MS Organisation Chart! Now, if you must create your starting point, keep it simple! An over complex starting point schedule will actually lull a PM into a false sense of security because they fail to focus on project specifics amongst all the detritus now living in the schedule.

One final argument I often hear for the all encompassing starting point schedule is that it helps non project managers who are running projects understand what they need to do. Actually, I think you'll find that reading a book on project management might be slightly more effective, or maybe a training course? Or, perish the thought - get project managers to run your projects!

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