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Project Management

Managing Uncertainty in Higher Ed

In the constantly shifting landscape an ongoing pandemic, project management and planning is understandably challenging. Changing your approach to the project timeline can help.

project management timeline

Administrators, staff and faculty are struggling with uncertainty as the impact of the pandemic continues to unfold at colleges and universities across the country. Handling myriad changes — in-person vs. remote learning, repurposed facilities, adjusted curriculum, staffing shifts — can wreak havoc on project management and planning. Predicting and adjusting to changing restrictions and protocols can be overwhelming as schools struggle to remake themselves on the fly.

Education employees in management roles have the added challenge of predicting and communicating when new projects and initiatives will be complete, then rolling those initiatives out to an entire community of students. Given the shifting timelines associated with an ongoing pandemic, adjusting timing based on world events and pulling new levers to make projects happen is creating frustration across many campuses. A missed forecast can have a considerable impact on the institution as a whole, with delays resulting in a cascading effect on all other parts of the organization. When it comes to education planning, a major consideration is the impact on students. As you'd imagine, poor planning doesn't just affect staff; it can also impact the larger student body and community as a whole. In many cases, missing a planned deadline simply isn't an option.

It would seem logical, then, that the number one goal would be to hit these projections every time. However, accurately predicting dates in a rapidly changing world is incredibly challenging. It's hard to determine resource availability, assess all the dependencies and communicate across teams. There is a lot that can throw the timeline off track. This process, which is usually difficult even in the best of times, was exacerbated this year by the ongoing pandemic, with the relocation of teams from campus to remote locations and students spread across the country. A constantly shifting set of rules that institutions need to follow to ensure safety adds another level of complexity to future planning. Even before the pandemic struck, a 2019 project management survey found only 19 percent of organizations deliver successful projects most of the time. Educational institutions are no exception; despite careful planning, most higher ed institutes fail to execute projects successfully.

Why does the higher ed sector struggle to complete projects on time? Partly because the conventional approach to project management relies on a static plan, pre-determined resources and a set list of activities that leave little room for obstacles or uncertainties. This varies drastically from the true non-linear progression of projects in the real world. Truth is, almost all projects experience setbacks and unforeseen roadblocks. Traditional tools and trackers fail to account for these inevitable fluctuations.

This boils down to determining the "when" of project delivery and accounting for roadblocks at a fundamental level. In particular, predicting the efficiency, conflicts, schedules and availability of contributors is arguably the most critical factor — and one of the hardest parts of a project manager's job. These people are the resources that are expected to get the job done, and when they're suddenly unavailable, delivery dates are inevitably missed.

Fortunately, some tools and techniques can help ensure managers accurately identify the "when" of project delivery. Let's look at two key elements:

1) Accurately Predicting Resource Availability

Most project management techniques assume that the contributing team members will have the same 40 hours available for the duration of a project. However, as we all know, this isn't realistic. Resources are always changing. Team members may get suddenly pulled into a higher-priority project; they could leave the institution, become ill or need time off. Or, their motivation could be waning, meaning that they're delivering far less than predicted during their scheduled work hours. For many projects, there is a complete lack of transparency. Some of the biggest blockers to success:

  • No clear delegation — the team doesn't know who is working on what;
  • Resources are shared across multiple managers — true availability is guessed, not known; and
  • Employees overcommit themselves, and can't deliver as promised.

Without a way to track this information, you have no insight into where project bottlenecks are — or how you can solve them with available resources. The solution is functionality in newer project management tools known as resource leveling. Rather than relying on a process, these tools consider availability and use automation to identify under/over-capacity resources and automatically redistribute based on availability. This helps ensure that projects keep marching toward delivery, despite fluctuations in resources.

2) Planning for Uncertainty

As we discussed previously, uncertainty is a given in any project. The only thing we know for sure is that the unexpected will occur. However, acknowledging this challenge is not the same as effectively managing it. When you tie your team to a specific deadline, one small delay can ruin the entire project and lead to cost overrun. Projects are built entirely around assumptions — in other words, guesses. We estimate how much our team can accomplish in a given amount of time, struggling to allow for some discrepancies but inevitably failing to predict all the challenges that will arise. People are notoriously bad at estimating efficiency. 

Even if you seek input from the delivering team, workers often underestimate their timelines because they don't want to disappoint project stakeholders, or they overestimate the ease with which they can complete the tasks. Other times they're just wildly optimistic. This "glass half full" mentality results in missed deadlines because of unanticipated delays or project schedules that almost immediately become out-of-date. This quickly turns the dynamic from one of excitement to one of stress and anxiety.

Newer project management tools bring automation to play to forecast scheduling and adjust timelines based on the system's changes. This sort of predictive scheduling uses integrated time tracking programmatically to refresh estimates and schedules for greater project timeline accuracy. A "high-confidence" estimate is provided, along with best- and worst-case plan estimates to allow for better preparation in the face of uncertainty, thereby mitigating risk. For those that aren't leveraging a tool or system for their planning, the same idea can be accomplished by setting delivery "windows" instead of set dates. Planning in phases can allow for flexibility as the initiative proceeds and builds team confidence, while still allowing for some unexpected challenges.

No project manager or tool can hit every delivery date with 100 percent certainty. However, by making subtle tweaks to your project timeline, you can empower your institution and set teams up for success, while still producing for your students, staff and community.

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