Your Stakeholders Will Have Many Questions Before Agreeing to a Delay
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

As the project manager you have more information than anyone else about the project status, and you’ve just concluded that the project will not complete on time.  You’ve initiated all of the proper discovery, investigation and replanning activities, and now it is time to secure approval for the new schedule.  Your stakeholders are a tough group and will want to ensure that everything has been done to prevent a schedule slip.  This article reminds you about the mindset of stakeholders that don’t want the schedule to move out.  The included checklist will help you prepare for discussions with your stakeholders.


The Schedule is Slipping

If you’ve managed more than a handful of projects then you very likely have encountered project variances;  you’ve probably been in a situation where it appears that the project cannot satisfactorily as agreed – it could be an issue of schedule, scope and/or cost.  This article focuses on slipping schedules, but the discussion points presented here are also applicable to scope and cost variances.

So your project cannot be completed on time?  Something has happened during the execution of project tasks and now the completion date appears to be slipping.  You are off plan and tensions are rising.  Most times, this is particularly difficult because you have team members insisting upon later completion dates for their tasks and you have stakeholders who are adamant that the project must complete per the baselined schedule.

As a project manager navigating your way through this situation, you’ve been on top of this situation and have:

  1. Become aware of issues that will delay completion of the project.
  2. Investigated the situation and have found it to be a legitimate reason for altering the project schedule.
  3. Confirmed that no mitigation actions can be initiated to keep the project on schedule.
  4. Alerted stakeholders of the situation and have scheduled a future meeting to seek approval on a proposed revision to the schedule.  Almost certainly your schedule delays will add costs, which will be reflected in the revised plan.
  5. Evaluated options for proceeding, and have made a selection of the preferred path.
  6. Completed re-planning activities for the preferred path forward.  You’ve covered the traditional project accountabilities (scope, schedule, cost) and have also included information on impact to the business.

Congratulations! You are now ready to seek concurrence from your project’s stakeholders.  If you have been communicating with stakeholders during your replanning activities, building their confidence and seeking their guidance, then this final step may be easier.



Understanding Your Project’s Stakeholders

As you prepare to gain the support of the project stakeholders on your proposed schedule change, your first inclination may be to rely solely upon the ‘fact’ that the project cannot be completed on time.  From your perspective, the delay is inevitable and you feel that the stakeholders have no alternative but to agree with your revised schedule.


That isn’t the starting point for your stakeholders, however.  If you are managing a project that is important to your stakeholders, then you will need to understand that changing the cost, schedule or scope of the delivery is a serious decision for them.  Few stakeholders will accept such a change without an adequate understanding of the situation.


From their point of view, they have chartered and launched a project with an agreed scope, budget and schedule.  They, quite reasonably, expect the project to complete as agreed.  Your status reports have probably indicated to them that the project is proceeding as planned.  If you now change the status of the project to show a delay, you’ll need to consider that this is a sudden change for your stakeholders.


Your inclination might be to announce the problem and immediately inform your stakeholders of the new schedule for their concurrence.  While it is laudable to come prepared with a proposed solution to the problem (and, indeed, this is a very good approach), it will not be effective to jump too quickly to “the solution” if your stakeholders have not agreed to the nature and details of the project problem.  Before even thinking of approaching a discussion about a new schedule, your stakeholders will need to have a sufficient understanding of the situation so they can convince themselves that: 

  • The schedule delay is unavoidable - there are no reasonable corrective or mitigation actions that can eliminate the need for delaying the schedule.
  • Your newly proposed schedule is the best timetable for completing the project – it is credible
  • Your newly proposed schedule solves the root problem – it addresses the newly discovered problems that caused the delay.
  • You are capable of managing the project in their best interests – although the project has suffered a setback, you have the ability to continue leading the project to completion.
  • There are no other unknown surprises lurking that will disappoint them – part of your job is to identify and resolve issues before they impact the ability of the project to be successful.


Project Information You Must Know and Convey

There are several important aspects of the situation that your stakeholders will likely need to see and understand before they will be comfortable in changing the project schedule.  Their clear agenda will be to prevent a project delay.  Sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish between a situation in which they have a legitimate need for information vs. a situation where confidence in your project management abilities is lacking.  The best approach to either situation is to be well prepared to give a coherent explanation that communicates the essence of the situation.


Below are key areas that your investigation, replanning, and communication with stakeholders should cover.  Use this as a checklist of information you should be prepared to cover when seeking approval to change the project schedule.  During your discussions with stakeholders, if you miss any one of these then you’ll just need to go back and fill the gaps.  If you are unable to speak to two or three of these items, then recognize that you are damaging your credibility as a capable project manager; you will likely have some reputation rebuilding to do.  If you can’t cover any of these project areas, then chances are pretty high that your line management will look for opportunities to replace you or take actions to improve the management of the project.

  1. Your summary of the problem and its impact
    • A high level summary of the problem and its underlying cause
    • The projected variance to the schedule, cost and scope
  2. Details on the problem – helping everyone come to agreement that there is a problem and on a common definition of the problem
    • Task starts that have been delayed and the reason for the delay
    • Task completions that have been delayed, with an explanation
    • Delays in external dependencies that are impacting task starts or completions
  3. Impact of the problem - so everyone has the same understanding of the problem's severity
    • Review of the critical path of project tasks; distinguish between delayed tasks that are on the critical path (i.e., critical tasks) and those that are not.
    • Show how delays in critical tasks are impacting the project completion schedule (this analysis can be a straightforward schedule adjustment that doesn’t necessarily account for resource availability or coordination of inter-organizational dependencies).
  4. Your proposed schedule - your best response to the problem
    • Summarize the overall changes to project schedule, cost and scope.
    • Review of alternatives that were considered, and the rationale for the chosen approach
    • Confirm that the schedule has gone through the necessary planning steps to secure agreement of the project team members
    • Review of the new critical path
    • Show how the project management approach ensures that there are no other serious project situations (more ‘bad news”) that are concealed and awaiting discovery.
  5. Improvements actions
    • Identify enhancements to project monitoring and control activities that will enable earlier detection (and correction) of this class of problem
    • Explain the actions that will be taken to improve the performance of external dependencies


Wrap Up

No project manager wants to disappoint stakeholders by delaying delivery, reducing scope or increasing costs, but sometimes situations arise where these changes are the only way forward.  Your best bet for handling the problem is to be aware of the various conversations (many of them unproductive) that can occur in your situation, and to steer the conversation so that stakeholder’s questions will be addressed by the results of your discovery and planning activities.


The discussions may provide you with new information that change your understanding of the problem (or impact), or you may find your stakeholders receptive to a new schedule based on your thorough discovery and replanning of the project.