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That project schedule of yours? Useless

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In a perfect world, office equipment would never break. Colleagues would be as dependable and timely as a Swiss train. And creating a foolproof schedule for a project would be a cinch. But in the real world, well, not so much.

What happens to that disciplined road map—your schedule—when you hit unexpected snags, as you’re bound to do?

One expert says that the reason for scheduling is so you’ll know when you’re running late, or when you’re going at a faster clip than expected. It’s not a script; it’s more like improv.

“Nothing runs the way you schedule it. It never happens,” says Alice C. Barnes, a project manager with more than 20 years’ experience. Her advice:

√ Create a project schedule so you know how you’re doing.

“A well-known general said something like, ‘When you’re in a battle, the plan is useless. The planning is essential.’ In other words,” says Barnes, “if you haven’t done your planning, you don’t know whether you’re taking too long or too short. You can’t react to it.”

√ You can plan down to the tiniest detail, but you’ll likely still be surprised by how the project unfolds.

She’s worked with everyone from the Department of Defense to AT&T. For the latter, she consulted when Lucent Technologies split off from AT&T. Detailing the last 24 hours before the moment of the split, she says, was a schedule that “went around an entire conference room, from floor to ceiling. Down to the second. It was the most detailed thing I’d ever seen.”

The split meant moving around hundreds of applications, systems and data, some of it dating back to the 19th century, when the company was founded. Every team member had tasks scheduled down to the minute.

“What happened all weekend was everything ran faster. You’d be running an hour ahead of schedule, but because you’d hit an external dependency, you wouldn’t start the next task. You’d just wait. Overall, it came in perfectly on time.”

√ Concentrate your energy on the critical path—or the things that must be completed on schedule, or the entire project will be delayed.

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