In this post, I will be covering the approach of starting your project planning with a finish date first and then reverse engineering your schedule backwards to a start date.
While this may seem common place we find that people struggle with the scheduling tools and relationship connectors to do this correctly.
My name is Tim Runcie and I manage a Project, Program and Portfolio management methodology and technology training and consulting company called Advisicon. Our whole focus is to help organizations optimize and leverage both PPM methodologies and great tools to automate and streamline productivity.
In my day job, I get to review and look at all types of different tools and approaches to solve business problems. My passion is to help our community of practice, leverage low hanging fruit that will readily empower you to go further and faster by the blend of technology and best practice methodologies. If you or your organization has a question, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, on to reverse engineering a Microsoft Project Schedule.
Starting with the End in Mind:
Steven Covey had a brilliant book on the “7 habits of Highly Effective People”, where he outlined 7 key steps. One of those steps was to start your day with the end in mind. In project management, this is a very familiar scenario, where senior management has given a target or a goal with the end date, and in some cases the budget laid out. Now the project manager has to figure out how to deliver this.
So let’s get started. There are a few key ingredients needed to make this work. I’m going to demonstrate today’s choice with MS Project, the most common scheduling tool used world-wide (30+ million users), but many of these principles are similar in other scheduling tools.
- First step is to have the end date. You will need this in order to begin planning
- Have MS Project Standard or MS Project Professional (now you can even use the Streaming version of Project Pro for Office 365)
- This will work with any version of MS Project (from Project 98 forwards)
- Have a list of key activities or engage your solution team(s) to help map out key linked steps
With these, you just need a little knowledge and you are on your way!
Common Issues to Avoid:
It is very common for project managers and schedulers to start with a schedule and wrestle through some of the obvious scheduling choices, but if you want the fewest amount of clicks avoid this common mistake in schedule creation.
In the following diagram, you can see that I am showing the Task Entry view, where the Gantt Chart, the Task Sheet and the Task form are all close together and I have circled 3 key areas.
These are the Predecessor relationships (there are certainly many more ways to edit this), but essentially we are showing a link (and the type of link) between task #1 and Task #2.
Either typing, clicking or double clicking any of these areas will allow you to drill down and select a different type of relationship.
Typically in creating a schedule we want to link activities together. And by clicking, typing or double clicking, you are presented with several choices for establishing a relationship. In this next diagram, you will see a relationship type called Start to Finish.
This can be used for Reverse engineering, but it doesn’t allow your schedule to be easily managed in a forward progressing one, so avoid this.
The idea is that the Start of a Task will trigger the finish of another task. If you were building your schedule, you would be listing the Finish Date as Row #1, then linking the next to the last Task as the second row in our schedule.
This would leave you with the Finish of your Project Schedule in Row #1 with the following rows evolving to the beginning of your schedule which may be Row #279. As you can see with this next diagram, it is NOT the easiest to manage a schedule with going forward, let alone follow and progress.
OK, now that we have identified a common pitfall, let’s look at how to get this working correctly!
Scheduling from the End Date:
First thing, we need that project end date. With this end date or go-live date, we can start planning backwards.
Follow along with these steps:
- Click on the Project Tab (on the Ribbon) and select the Project Information button
- Once in the Project Information Dialog box, choose the Schedule From Drop down choice and choose the Project Finish Date. This will allow you to Enter your End Date directly into the Finish Date field (which was greyed out before).
- Now start building your Project Schedule normally, however you are going to want to try this approach.
- Enter the Finish date into Row #1.
- Then insert a new row above Row #1, forcing the End Date Milestone or Activity to move to row #2. Essentially allowing you to plan backwards, but to layout the schedule as if you had typed it from the start first.
- With each successive task you add, you will link and create the relationships normally that you would, but as you enter durations and link activities, watch your Project Start date continue to move backwards.
- This is showcasing the process of where your schedule is moving the start date because it is fixed and allowing you to reverse engineer your schedule from a fixed end dateIn the diagram below, I used the exact same tasks as we saw in the reverse engineered schedule above, however adding them in this order created a Start Task at Row #1 with my Project Complete task at the end of the schedule, as seen below.
Let’s add some final touches here.
- With the End date, you should put a Deadline as you will most likely be moving or shortening the schedule so you are so tightly pressed in managing the schedule.
- Double Click on the last Task or Milestone (Project Complete) and click on the Advanced Tab
- Then Choose the End Date Deadline. This will set a monitoring point that will help you later when you flip your schedule around that your tasks are moving beyond the end date of the project. You can see this in the next picture.
- Once you have that chosen, click on the OK Button
- In the screenshot below, you can see the end Date now has a Deadline Icon on it. This will stay there as you move the project start date back and it will help you identify slippage with an alert.
Flipping the Schedule for Forwards / Dynamic Planning:
OK, now if you started managing your project schedule, you would find that every time you typed a new duration, you project schedule would continue to push the start date back.
What we need to do is tell Project what the new Start Date of the Project is and to start scheduling from the start and moving the end dates out.
Remember how we setup the reverse engineering scheduling mode earlier? We are going to follow these steps again, but by choosing to schedule from the Start date.
- Click on the Project Tab and select the Project Information button on the ribbon
- Now select the Project Start Date from the Schedule From drop down box. Make sure to choose the Project Start Date. As you won’t be able to enter one until you choose this and you can choose a more realistic start date.
- Click the OK Button and you will now be able to manage your schedule normally, with the durations moving out the end date vs. the start date.
- As you make changes in your schedule, your deadline will help show when you will be moving over the set finish date
I hope this has helped give you an edge to quickly start and launch a project schedule by starting with the end date and working backwards.
Remember, the key steps in this planning technique is to not forget to flip the schedule back around to get the benefits of both backwards planning and forward dynamic scheduling.
You are now ready to do reverse engineering quickly and effectively. Good luck with your scheduling and feel free to reach out to me at Tim.Runcie@Advisicon.com for questions. Happy PM’ing!
~Tim Runcie, PMP, MCT, MCTS, P-TSP, MVP