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Change in the Forecast? No Problem— Let’s Rework Your Project Plan

Picture yourself two sprints into a project as you come to a stark realization: after completing the up-front technical discovery for the project as well as uncovering complexities that you didn’t realize during estimations before the project was sold, you forecast that your current project timeline will not provide what your team needs to deliver a quality product in time. While you’re not that far into the project, you know that the best way forward is to communicate early to your client the present situation, a plan, and an ask. Knowing you’re about to negotiate changes with your stakeholders, it might feel daunting to be you at this point.

So, what is part of your ask, and how do you navigate this scenario? In this article I’ll explain options available to you and some strategies for ensuring you have a productive conversation that builds trust rather than friction in your client relationship.

This is not a unique situation for only professional services firms. Any team might face this situation, whether you are a professional services firm, a creative agency, a product company, or a nonprofit. Things change and we should learn to expect it.

What puts you in a unique position in this scenario is that you are identifying a need that may not yet be visible to all stakeholders and accountable parties in your project. You have the responsibility to identify this change to your audience and also lead the conversation about how to work through the problem.

The Ask: What can the team change?

One framework you can think through is to evaluate the 3 sides of the project triangle: scope, time, and budget.

You can only change two of these, and not all three!

The rule is you(r client) can control two but you must be flexible on the third. If you want to fix budget and time, you’ll need to be flexible on scope, meaning some features in your product may need to be deferred or dropped altogether. If you want to fix scope and time, you might need to increase your budget to add staff and increase the velocity of your team, and so on.

Don’t fret. You have options, and with careful consideration of your client’s needs, you might already be able to understand where they can be flexible. Just about every product manager has been in this position — budget changes, unexpected roadblocks…that’s simply how it goes sometimes.

Even though we know these situations will arise, it doesn’t mean they are easy or pleasant to sort out. Before you start Googling “How to save face with my client”, take stock of the situation and make your plan.

  • Identify what changed. What did you assume before that you have clarified now?
  • Evaluate what product features might be eligible for substitution or deferral
  • Brainstorm potential ways to speed up delivery by adding team members or changing your team processes
  • Consider if a delay to the timeframe is acceptable without any other changes
  • Understand what impacts there are to your margin based on potential staffing and budget changes — how can you offer flexibility given the situation?

Making this a productive collaboration with your client

While your stakeholder may not want to hear their project is running behind, the truth is they’re now a collaborator in the situation and are a key part of the solution. It’s highly important for your client to expectation-set with those they are accountable to, so the earlier you begin these conversations, the better. Be transparent. Clearly communicate your findings, the new forecast and provide options on how to move forward, giving your client the feeling of control and choice in the situation, and begin to form your shared approach to a resolution.

A slide showcasing what has changed and what category of change each item falls into (increased complexity, new functionality, dependency).

Remind yourself throughout the process that responding to change and being adaptable is actually an enormous part of what makes teams successful in the first place. Every project I have worked on had some level of adaptation along the way. We always uncover something we didn’t expect, and often times, these are important turning points in our work.

Helping your clients understand with great clarity why you’re here, why it’s important to reset, and how you can help them make a decision will build trust in your relationship. You may want to consult tools like a framework for challenging conversations as part of your preparation. How you organize your narrative when introducing the topic of change can help the entire process start properly.

How do we codify our solution?

Here’s a quick recap on where you are. You’ve validated some of your pre-project assumptions and invalidated others, have identified specifically what items have changed plus added in new requests, have prepared a plan with multiple options using combinations of the three levers in the project triangle, and have discussed these with your client. Good job! Now that conversations have been had and decisions have been made, you need to formalize and document the go-forward plan.

Change requests (CRs) are the vehicle for codifying updates to your project plan (and funding). Your company should have a change request template that you can use. This is not a new contract — it is simply an amendment to your existing contract. Here are the key sections of this artifact:

  • An opening paragraph outlining the parties, and the date of the document
  • A description of the changes you’re highlighting as part of this CR. This include changes to deliverables, scope, dates. Be as explicit as you can so that there is no room for misinterpretation.
  • A description of items listed in the original statement of work (SOW) that are no longer being delivered. These are the items you descoped.
  • The value of the change request (if new fees are being added) and any changes to the allowable expenses under the change request. If your project timeline extends, you may also need to increase the travel budget as an example.
  • An updated payment schedule including the original payments and any new payments
  • Signatures

After a few proof reads, cross checks with the original statement of work, checkpoints with your staffing organization, and your finance team, export a PDF copy of this document and share it with your client for signature and processing. You’re almost there. A few emails and phone calls later, and you should now successfully be through the process. It’ll feel really nice to get back to your regular work.

Closing Ideas

I haven’t yet mentioned that during the course of this process for change, you’ve effectively gone through a mini retrospective. With the learnings from this experience, the goal should be to minimize the chances that similar (incorrect) assumptions are made next time. I have gone through multiple change request processes with clients in the last year alone, and the client relationships I have right now are stronger than ever. Our team has built a relationship on trust, and now most of our time is spent focusing on building the best software possible. When we have issues, there is give and take. Despite the initial discomfort when we identified our first significant changes, we’re now working in a healthy comfortable environment.

If you’d like to ask a question about the situation you’re in, email me. I’d love to help.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to 👏 and share if you found it helpful!