Mastering the Management Consulting Project Timeline

A project timeline is a central component in any good project management strategy. But as many management consultants have learned the hard way, creating and sticking to a timeline is not as easy as it sounds. Depending on the type of consulting engagement, many project elements – from people to technology to operational and market factors — can generate unexpected complications and delays, quickly throwing a project off-track.

Regardless, a project timeline is an important early step in time management planning and a necessary project management tool for educating your client and keeping your project on schedule and on budget. Whatever your consulting project entails, a detailed timeline enables a management consultant to:

o Give your client prompt, accurate status reports regarding what tasks are completed, due or behind schedule;

o Track your progress toward project goals, and determine whether you’re coming out on-target or behind in terms of payment;

o Identify potential setbacks and resolve them before they cause delays;

o Alert your client earlier to any potential delays – before they put the project behind and create liability for you as a management consultant;

o Invoice your client as project milestones are attained; and

o Monitor how long project components actually take, so you can better estimate time required for future projects.

Developing timelines

At first, developing reliable timelines can be a challenge. If you’ve ever started a consulting project with a schedule in hand, only to encounter setbacks that push your project off-schedule, committing to a timeline may feel like an exercise in futility.

But even if your timeline is just a rough estimate, it is still a useful tool for time management planning. It gives your client a visual aid for understanding how the project will flow, and demonstrates that you have a clear vision of the steps that need to happen to achieve specific project milestones. And, it can protect you against management consulting liability by helping you educate your client about the impact of potential project delays that are beyond your control.

To begin, talk to your client to define the major project milestones that must be accomplished during the course of the project. Use these milestones as the building blocks of your project timeline. Then, consider the steps that must take place to get from point A to point B, C, D and so on – and the logical order in which each step must be completed.

Think about what task must be accomplished in order to begin the next. If multiple tasks can be accomplished at the same time, chart them in parallel. If completing one task involves multiple sub-tasks, it may need a small timeline of its own.

When estimating the necessary time to accomplish each step, talk to the people who will be involved, and realistically consider the amount of time each person can commit to the project. Clearly define any project components for which the client’s team members are responsible, and set deadlines for accomplishing those tasks. Involve the stakeholders in setting these dates, and gain their commitment that they can meet the deadlines.

As you continue to employ timelines to track your projects, it will become easier to create future project timelines. Continually tracking your progress against your timelines gives you historical project management data that will help you estimate the time required for future management consulting projects.

Sticking to Timelines

One way to help ensure that you stick to your timeline is to build in a little extra wiggle room. For example, you might decide to develop two timelines: one for your own use, with more optimistic deadlines, and another, with later deadlines that you share with your client. Then, when you hit your own internal deadlines, you actually come out ahead of schedule in the client’s eyes. This project management method helps compensate for less-than-perfect estimates and unexpected events.

Another project management technique is to simply build a little extra buffer time into your schedule – particularly in areas where you suspect that your assumptions and estimations could potentially be off.

If at any point you find yourself falling behind schedule, look at the tasks coming up, and see if there is any way to dedicate time or resources to them early, so that you can make up for lost time later in the project.

Creating a realistic schedule often means that committed delivery dates will land farther out than your client would prefer. However, a practical project timeline demonstrates that you’ve considered everything it will take to get the job done right, and makes it more likely that you’ll accomplish what you’ve committed to.

Stay Flexible

No matter how hard you try to keep a project on track, the fact is, there are situations when you’ll need to adapt your project timeline.

It usually happens when you or other team members run into something you didn’t expect, such as an insurmountable technical glitch, budget cuts, operational restructuring or personnel turnover. It can also happen when client priorities shift mid-stream due to changing marketplace conditions, or when the client realizes that what they’ve asked for represents just a small part of a larger goal.

In these cases, you and all other project stakeholders must be willing alter your expectations and commitments. As the management consultant, consider the impact the changes will have on the time required to accomplish the project’s goals, and adapt your timeline accordingly. Any time you make a change, be sure to promptly inform everyone involved in the project of what has changed, and why.

By creating a realistic project timeline, and tracking progress against it as part of an overall project management strategy, you’re more likely to keep your management consulting project on-time and on-budget. Even if you fall behind, a timeline gives you a convenient and impressive tool for keeping your client informed of progress and the reasons for any delays. And an educated and informed client is more likely to be a loyal client.