How To Manage Fixed Date Projects in PRINCE2®

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Planning is an essential part of what project managers do, so you would expect there to be some mention of how to deal with fixed date projects in the PRINCE2® manuals. There isn’t.

A project with a fixed end date could be something like a product launch, where the date has already been committed and publicized. Another example would be a public event, or an event that is tied to a national holiday. You’d look a bit silly having your 4th July fireworks two weeks later because your project overran.

PRINCE2 doesn’t talk about fixed date projects beyond mentioning that iterative-incremental methods like agile use timeboxing to create sprints for fixed time periods. That’s not really what I’m talking about here. If you have a specific date by when a project has be done, you could deliver it with any methodology: the end date is the important constraint.

There is a brief mention of schedule-driven projects in the section on planning tolerances, which makes sense as that is how you are going to manage the time constraints.

Ideally, the PRINCE2® method expects you to do project management properly, with sponsors who commit to realistic plans and don’t expect you to deliver the world on a plate by Tuesday lunchtime.

Unfortunately, when does any methodology get applied perfectly? Project managers still need some guidance on how to manage projects that have a fixed date.

PRINCE2® advises that a schedule-driven project would have a narrow time tolerance. In other words, a tolerance of zero means any delay would end up in the project missing the date and therefore failing.

You can manage this as a planning risk. Identify planning risks based on fiscal boundaries (for example, where you can’t move the project budget from one financial year to the next) and also on calendar boundaries (for example, delivering something before the end of the tax year).

If you are doing product-based planning properly, you will end up with a schedule that shows exactly how long the project is going to take. You then take this to the sponsor and ask for agreement.

The role of the project board in PRINCE2®

The role of the Project Board members is PRINCE2 is to make a commitment to provide adequate resources to successfully deliver the project, and time is one of them.

For example, people may not be available to resource the project adequately to enable it to hit the scheduled dates because they are working on other things.

The Project Board members should decide between themselves how best to meet all the organization’s commitments and manage competing priorities. I’d like to be a fly on the wall in those conversations sometimes!

The good news for project managers is that the Project Board are clearly advised by PRINCE2® that their role is to endorse the Stage Plans as realistic representations of the work required to achieve the deliverables.

That is, by agreeing a Stage Plan, they also agree that it is completely possible to do all the work in the required time and they sign up to providing all the resources necessary to make that happen. If you use gate reviews, the stage plan is reviewed there, so there is every intention that the committed plan should be reasonable and realistic.

They can’t agree a Stage Plan, take away half your project team and then blame you when you can’t get the work done on time. Has your Project Board done this to you? I hope not, but it’s not unheard of!

Something for your sponsor to read: 10 Tips for Being a Good Sponsor

While there isn’t a lot of practical guidance about managing fixed date or schedule-driven projects in PRINCE2®, the reason is that you should rarely, if ever, be managing fixed date projects. 

PRINCE2® is all about managing in a controlled environment (that’s the C and the E of PRINCE), not one where everyone is rushing around panicking to get things done by a date some executive thought up on the golf course.

Sometimes the dates are fixed due to external events (getting married is another classic example), but the project should start early enough for the deadlines to be realistic, even if they are fixed.

If you are expected to manage a fixed date project in a PRINCE2® environment, question how that fits with the method – because it doesn’t fit very well. Set your scheduled tolerances low and make sure everyone is on board, as you have got very little wiggle room for errors.