What Architects Can Teach Schedulers

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. The Architect and the Owner (his Client, the End User of his design effort) sat opposite one another, each staring down at the table. Eye contact was becoming increasingly awkward. At last, the Architect broke the silence, trying one last time. “Jennie, if you tell me what contents you envision for each room, I can estimate the room sizes that will accommodate those items.”

Jennie looked up, almost teary-eyed. “I know, Bill. I understand what you are asking for. But,” and she paused again to gather her strength, “unless I can see the room in your virtual model, I cannot picture what might look good in there.”


In the world of architectural design this standoff is known more affectionately as “Form Follows Function” versus “Function Follows Form.” Most of us in Project Management understand the concept intuitively. All other factors equal, most often we would prefer form to follow function. This assumes, of course, that the primary definition of Project Success is a project that functions as intended and desired by the Project Owner.

There is a colloquial expression for the opposite condition, where function follows form: “Making it work!” The Owner does not get the end product they had in mind, but it is too late or too costly to go back and change anything. And so, in the end, they have to “make it work.”

The Project Manager (As Bill, the Architect)

I presented the analogy of the Architect and the End User to illustrate an important point about the influential and even catalytic role of dependencies between Activities in a Schedule. But more about that later.

For now, let’s consider how a Project Manager goes about developing a Project Schedule (of course, with vital input from the Key Participants on the Project).  At first, he behaves just like Bill, the Architect.  Without concerns for what budgetary or temporal limits might be imposed by the contract, he first looks at the elements of the Project (as described in the Construction Documents) and gradually forges a Project Execution Strategy that achieves the Project in a responsible, reasonable length of time.  In this manner, Form follows Function.  The length of the Project (form) is determined based on what needs to be accomplished and in what logical order (function).

The Project Manager (As Jennie, the Owner)

Of course, developed without regard for the constraints of the Contract, it is entirely likely that this first pass at a Schedule will prove to overrun the contractual deadlines of the Project. And so, given the outer parameters set by the Contract, the Project Manager must now modify the Project Execution Strategy in order to find a way to accomplish all that must be done in less time than would have been desired.

Schedule Acceleration Leads to Increased Risk of Schedule Slippage

Just how does one go about shortening the length of a Project Execution Strategy? There are only two ways to reduce the overall length of a Project, without deleting scope: either reduce the Activity Durations, or overlap the performance of Activities.

  • Reducing Activity Durations: This  is not usually the preferred option, for several reasons.
    • First, the faster that work is performed, the greater chance for costly mistakes.
    • Second, many Activities can be accelerated only so much; beyond that, no matter how many additional workers or materials or equipment you throw at the activity, it just won’t get done any sooner. In fact, the introduction of additional workforces might actually slow things down!
    • Third, Activity Durations need to have a little “flex” in them, a little “wiggle room” to allow for those unexpected “surprises” that happen on every project. When Activity Durations are reduced to their bare minimum durations, they are stripped of any ability to rebound, should they incur a delay. Cognitive Project Management calls this ability to rebound a Resilience Factor.
  • Overlapping Activities: The other obvious way to shorten a Project Length is by overlapping Activities, by starting a downstream Activity some time before the upstream Activity has entirely finished. And the more overlapped Activities there are in a Schedule, the less resilience the overall Schedule has with which to bounce back from unexpected delays.

As Margin of Error Decreases, Need for Commitment Increases

There is a proportional relationship between the extent to which Activities in a Schedule are overlapped and the extent/depth of Project Management oversight required in the performance of  those Activities. You see, the more overlapped Activities there are overlapped, the less wiggle room there is between them. This means that if anything delays the start or continued performance of the upstream Activity, the likelihood of a Domino Effect impact on the downstream Activity is correspondingly increased. Accordingly, the downstream Activity has a greater dependence on the timely performance of the upstream Activity than it would have had, had there been less overlap.

All of this should make perfect, common sense. And for that reason I do not believe that I am sharing some profound pearl of wisdom. Rather, at most, I might be providing a friendly and helpful reminder: that there are practical implications and consequences to those dependencies that we draw between Activities, when we are first developing a new CPM Schedule.

So the next time you start reducing Lead/Lag Values or, worse, shortening Activity Durations in an effort to reduce a Schedule’s overall Project Length, ask yourself if the Project’s Management Team will have enough influence to achieve and sustain the level of micromanagement necessary to sustain the more aggressive Project Execution Strategy.

Did all of the Key Participants have input into the creation of the Project Execution Strategy? Do they all agree with the aggressiveness of its planned Pace and Direction, its momentum? Have they committed to performing their particular portion in conformance with the Project Execution Strategy?

If you don’t have broad-based buy-in, if you don’t have firm commitments, then you just have a lot of paper. And you can bet that the Schedule will be ignored; it will just be a matter of time.

4 Comments to What Architects Can Teach Schedulers

  1. Zach Reed says:

    The main point to me is communicating the issues with the project team and working together to find the best solution. It might be possible to realistically reduce certain durations and still be in the realm of possibility. As for making overlapping activities, that is a risk factor that should be carefully determined by the project team. In practice, the solution will likely be a combination of approaches.

  2. Dave says:

    An interesting blog topic with some terms of which I was unaware. The blog provides a further illustration of the role of dependencies in a schedule prompted by the analogy of the architect and customer. If the schedule is not developed correctly then more problems occur later on and then trying to shorten the schedule becomes even more difficult and often leads to increased schedule slippage.

    As the blog mentions there’s only a couple of ways to shorten a schedule either by reducing activity durations or by overlapping activities. Reducing activity durations and trying to perform the work faster is a recipe for disaster. Adding resources also often leads to a slow down. Too much reduction in activity duration takes away all the wiggle room and once there’s no flex there’s no ability to rebound or no Resilience Factor.

    The other alternative of overlapping activities has a similar affect and results in less resiliency of the schedule to bounce back. Because of that less wiggle room and if the start and continued performance is delayed then the possibility of a domino effect on downstream activities is increased.

  3. Michael Neal says:

    [C] When is the schedule being compressed, beginning or middle or late in the game. The current status of the project may allow for some activiteis durations to be reduced to pick up some time. Need to find out who or what is restraining the project and make them decide if they are in or out. Since each project is defferent there needs to be a thought out process and a “what if” schedule produced to see different scenarios.

  4. Connie Bremer says:

    It does make perfect sense that if you have to compress a schedule by shortening duration(s) and/or shortening restriction delay values, you must have complete buy-in due to the increased management/oversight implications. Otherwise, efforts to pull in a completion date will be completely wasted.

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