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Staring Projects on Time... it's sorta like planning a dinner party.Starting projects on time leads to finishing projects on time. But, how do you know when to start? Using planning a multiple course meal as an example, here are nine tips to make sure that you are starting projects on time.

1. Start timelining by what takes the longest, rather than what is due the soonest.

If you have to marinate your pork tenderloin or brine your turkey, you have to schedule that first. You would need to take into account how long it might take to thaw out if you haven’t bought it fresh, how long you want it to be in the brine/marinade and also how long it takes to actually make that bath for the meat. You need to determine what you will be soaking it in – something like a turkey might require a cooler. Additionally, determine when you are actually purchasing all the ingredients. These items might need to be purchased before your fresher items to make sure they are ready to go.

In other words, what is the most time-consuming piece of your project? Schedule that first. The rest we will schedule around it.

2. Consider what can be done ahead of time to avoid last-minute drama or mistakes.

Consider what items you are preparing that will keep the longest. Desserts are often an example of things that can be made several days in advance so you don’t even have to worry about them come crunch time. Cakes are great in this regard as there aren’t even last minute tasks that need to be done – you just cut, garnish and serve.

In the scope of a project, think about what can be accomplished that isn’t tied to the deadline and schedule those to get done far in advance.

3. Determine what must be done at the very end.

You can’t saute vegetables and have them keep for several hours. If you are frying foods, they must be served fairly immediately. Those types of things must be done at the end.

From a project’s standpoint, figure out those last minute requirements. They might include tasks like adding security to a solution or dropping in a logo that is still in development from another designer. Starting a project on time requires that you plan time for the last minute items as well. Work that into the schedule.

4. Plan what can be done to prepare for the last minute needs.

Just because you can’t saute your vegetables until they are ready to serve, doesn’t mean you can’t slice and dice earlier in the timeline. In cooking, this is called mise en place, which is French for “putting things in place.” When you watch a cooking show, they will often show people dumping in assorted spices from a cute little glass ramekin. That’s mise en place, and it applies to projects as well.

What can you prep in advance? Can you layout the page using Greek copy which is the approximate length of what the copywriter will deliver you? If importing data is the last step, what kind of data cleanup needs to be done in advance and how long will it take? Preparing for the last minute things in advance will help you with starting projects on time. Schedule all those last minute things.

5. Fill in the gaps.

Now, what’s left? Don’t forget to include cooking times and how long it will take you to shop and to chop. What are the little things that you might forget? The garnish for the plates is often something I end up finding on the counter after I’ve served a course. So, how can you make sure you don’t overlook it? Allocate time and methods on how to make sure all the other little steps are accomplished. Be sure to accommodate bake times. This is the time when you go back through your recipes and think of all the things that you haven’t scheduled yet.

From a project standpoint, review the scope. Review any standard procedures you have. Make sure you allow for quality control – testing and proofreading.

6. What about contingencies?

Go back through your flow of work and make sure everything is in the right order. You want to make sure, for example, that you have made the stock for the sauce before you are actually scheduled to make the sauce. Ensure that everything that is contingent on something else happens in the right order.

7. Give yourself some cushion.

Did you leave time for the wine to breathe? What about lunch for yourself? A nap so you can enjoy your friends at dinner without being worn out from cooking all day? The regular chores you still have to do every day, like walking the dog? And, don’t forget, you’re likely to have to make a last-minute run to the grocery store because you forgot something that you usually have or when you opened the brand new container of heavy cream that didn’t expire for 2 weeks, you find it to be soured. (Can you tell what actually has happened to me? Ha!)

In the project world, this includes things like scheduling holidays, vacations, and, yes, weekends! Starting projects on time includes planning for people to get sick – your team as well as your client’s. And, remember, nothing comes without interruptions. The phones will ring. Emails will come in. You will be working on more than one project at a time. So, cushion the timeline.

8. Allocate resources.

Now that all the steps are accounted for, you need to determine who is going to do what and assure their availability during that time. In the cooking world, this might include whether or not the oven is available at the right time – or you have enough burners on the stove. Can you get a guest to pour the wine? Can your husband be your emergency run-to-the-store-at-the-last-minute guy? Do you have someone to help you chop, or do you need to buy something pre-chopped to help make the timeline?

In the project world, think of things like subcontractor/freelance availability. If you are printing something, have you scheduled the print time with your vendor? Do you need to start with a pre-packaged solution and customize it to deliver on time? Who can test things or proofread for you? Do you have enough physical computer stations for all the coders you will need to bring in for the project?

9.  Is it possible?

And we come to the last step… now that you have worked through a timeline, is it realistically feasible? This is where the menu might have to be changed. If you need the oven at two different temperature for two steps that must occur at the same time, you might have to change something you are preparing. You can consider alternatives – will the grill or a toaster oven work instead; what about a <GASP> microwave; can you borrow the neighbors’ oven? If the alternatives won’t work, you will have to change the menu.

The scope is what would have to change in project management terms. You might have to plan a Phase 2. Or explain to a client that the reports will come later because you have to have data to build reports. But, if you don’t verify that the work is possible, you will do your clients (and your guests) a disservice by not delivering the best quality product.

Starting a project on time includes all these steps – and that goes for any project to be successful – whether it’s a spectacular dinner party, a killer custom software solution, or a beautiful corporate brochure.

Discovering and planning how to conquer the challenges is all part of what makes your services professional… or at least the friend whose dinner invitations you never refuse.

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