We’ve all felt that sinking feeling when it becomes all too clear a project won’t meet its deadline. But that doesn’t mean all is lost: Project managers have two secret weapons at their disposal.
Project fast tracking and project crashing are two ways to speed a project up. But a bit like making a wish with the cursed monkey’s paw — a cautionary tale reminding us that unintended consequences often accompany the best intentions — these two techniques come with risks and must be used wisely.
Intrigued and frightened in equal measures? It’s not as intimidating as it sounds. Here’s everything you need to know about using these techniques to tame the next unruly project that comes your way.
What is fast tracking in project management?
When deadlines are looming, project managers have a choice: They can either complete each task sequentially and risk missing the date — or they can get the team to work on tasks concurrently. This is called fast tracking.
There are a number of reasons project managers find themselves in this situation:
- The deadline is unrealistic
- The project scope is undefined
- There’s a lack of materials or resources — for example, someone is off sick, or resource management wasn’t handled correctly
- Malfunctioning equipment
- Low levels of productivity
- Poor communication
- A need to get the product to market faster
To fast track a project, the project manager first needs to work out the project’s critical path to see which tasks can be performed simultaneously and which can’t. This will also show you the longest stretch of dependent tasks. I.e., tasks that rely on the completion of others before they can begin.
Finding out the longest stretch of dependent tasks will show you the bare minimum amount of time your project will take. The other tasks that aren’t dependent can be completed simultaneously.
To use a real-world example: Imagine you’re part of a team getting a new house ready for a client. You can’t paint a house until it’s been built, the wiring installed, and the walls plastered. These are dependent tasks because they each rely on the one before it being completed. But you can paint it while the garden is being landscaped and the carpets put down. Doing these three activities at the same time speeds up the project. This is fast tracking in action.
What are the risks of fast tracking a project?
Quality: When you’re doing one thing, you can focus all your energy on that task. When you add another task to the mix, your attention is divided. Multitasking has been proven to be bad for productivity, and the same goes for teams. Giving them more things that they can perhaps handle increases the likelihood of error and could mean the quality of the work produced is lower.
Control: With several tasks going on at once, the project manager’s attention is split. This makes it harder to keep an eye on progress and deadlines. It’s multitasking causing problems again…
Risk: An overworked team might make mistakes that push the budget over its limits. There’s also the risk that fast tracking a project simply doesn’t work. For example, if you have two or more workflows running simultaneously, your critical path will be the workflow that takes the longest. If you can’t fast track that workflow, then altering the others will have no impact on the project finish date.
For example — say you’re building a house. Painting will take seven days, fitting the kitchen will take five days, and laying the carpets will take one day. No one can move into the house until it’s painted, no matter how much you fast track the other two jobs.
Crashing vs. fast tracking
Project crashing and fast tracking are two ways a project manager can speed up a project to meet a deadline. They’re often mentioned together — and while they do have the same goal, the approaches are very different.
Crashing a project
So fast tracking has saved some time, but not enough, and that deadline is looming. All is not lost.
Crashing is a technique that involves analyzing cost and schedule trade-offs to understand how the biggest time gains can be made for the lowest increase in cost.
First, the project manager needs to work out which activities are critical, then decide which can be completed faster with additional resources. Increasing resources speeds tasks up, but it does add to the cost of the overall project.
The next step involves a bit of number crunching: The project manager needs to identify an opportunity for trade-off, then work out the gain and the reduction in time this trade-off will bring. Once they’ve worked this out for each critical task, the project manager needs to choose the least costly approach, then share the crash plan with the project sponsor and wider team.
When to fast track a project and when to crash it
Some projects just aren’t fast track-able because the critical path extends beyond the deadline. In this instance, you’ll need to crash it before fast tracking it.
To go back to that house we’re building, crashing would involve hiring more decorators to get the house painted earlier or taking people away from other projects to help out on painting. In this scenario, crashing might be enough. Or, you might need to crash the painting task and fast track the others.
The risks here include spending the budget too quickly or slowing down other jobs because you’ve moved people from one task to another. It’s also important to remember that throwing more people at a job might be more trouble than it’s worth. A classic case of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth.’
How to fast track a project in 4 steps
1. Make sure fast tracking is the right route
Is that deadline really worth scrambling around and doubling up on tasks? If you can get away with postponing, that will usually be the better option. Before you take the leap, ask yourself the following questions:
- How much time do you need to make up to reach your deadline?
- Which activities make up the critical path, and can they be fast-tracked?
- What are the task dependencies?
- What impact will schedule changes have on team members, resources, the customer, and the organization?
2. Make a plan
Fast tracking is a hectic process. Having a detailed plan in place will be a huge help when it’s time to juggle multiple jobs at once. Project management software will be your secret weapon here: Using a cloud-based tool means the whole team can log in and watch progress, receive task updates, and get team notifications in real-time.
3. Revise the schedule
Next, work out your critical path and task dependencies, and see which activities can be fast tracked.
Pro tip: If you’re using project management software, you might have a tool that lets you do this at the click of a button. Visualizing your data makes it way easier to understand — and Gantt charts in particular are great for showing timings and durations.
4. Monitor the project
With multiple tasks happening in tandem, keeping a firm grip on progress is a must. Project management software can help with real-time charts and notifications, as well as help you spot bottlenecks before they cause trouble. Alongside checking schedules and updates, regularly catch up with your team to make sure they have all they need to work effectively. They’ll be able to offer helpful insights you might have otherwise missed.
Fast tracking and project crashing are useful ways to make up for lost time if a project is liable to overrun — but both come with risks. Before you choose either, it’s important you fully weigh up the pros and cons before taking the plunge.
As with all projects, good communication can be the difference between success and disaster. As well as talking to individuals on a daily basis to make sure they have everything they need, take advantage of project management tools: trackers, Gantt charts, and real-time notifications can all be a huge help when it comes to making sure everyone is on the same page — something that’s a must when everyone’s on a white-knuckle ride towards a deadline.