One of the biggest pieces of successful planning and setting realistic expectations is understanding what your team is capable of. For more inexperienced project managers a common mistake in planning is under or over-estimating your team’s capability and throughput.
Understanding the scope and deliverables of the project helps set the stage for how the work will actually be done. In my previous post, I discussed engaging your team members in the planning process. Getting your team engaged in planning and estimating is vital to successful planning. But how do we translate those great ideas, estimates and approaches into a realistic project plan?
The first step is to know your team. Are they prone to over-promising? How do they react under time pressures? How do they problem-solve? These are all intangible factors that need to be considered when plotting out a plan and schedule. While a task may be estimated at three days to complete, how much time over-and-above the work is required to work through unexpected issues, deal with interference from other duties or even deal with personal issues.
One mistake I made early on in my project management career was to assume that when a resource is fully assigned to your project that their output will be at 100% capacity. I did not take into account skill level, newness to the company but most importantly - how do these team members react to time pressures, changing requirements (vetted through proper change control) and constructive feedback?
A general rule of thumb is to never assume that anyone will be putting through 100% capacity (unless the task is so routine that they can do it in their sleep!). That being said, just assigning someone at 80% and assuming the 20% buffer will save you is a dangerous assumption. While everyone needs to be held accountable for their estimates, inevitably there will come a time where someone will exceed the effort and/or duration estimates for their tasks. To minimize the impact on your project, you as a project manager need to be able to predict performance and put in a mitigation plan to minimize the impact to your project.
There is no silver-bullet solution for perfectly planning a project, but the more you know your team, the more you can predict behavior (positive or negative) and plan for it. Remember, a good project is one with no surprises.