First Step in a Team-Based Schedule: EARLY-MIDDLE-LATE

By Nancy Lea Hyer and Karen A. Brown

We recently participated in a strategic planning process with board members of a non-profit organization. The board had generated a long list of initiatives in support of the chosen strategy but was struggling with how to organize the work in a way that would bridge the gap between big picture ideas and implementation tactics.  The Early-Middle-Late process provided the way out.  The group took each initiative and determined whether it was something that should be undertaken right away, in the distant future, or somewhere in between these two ends of the chronological spectrum.   As decisions were made, team members recorded initiatives on a white board under one of three headings: EARLY, MIDDLE and LATE. From here, the detailed scheduling of implementation tactics became manageable.

This same approach can aid any project team in creating a schedule. First, the team must decide what level of detail to use in developing the schedule. The team might decide to schedule at the lowest-level of detail, or perhaps base the schedule on higher-level summary tasks. Once this decision has been made, team members write the name of each work package, activity, or task (depending on chosen level of detail) on a sticky note. Next, the team creates three columns on a white board (or large sheet of wall mounted paper, preferably at least 1 meter by 2 meters) and labels them EARLY, MIDDLE and LATE. To continue, the team jointly reviews each item and decides whether it needs to happen EARLY in the project, LATE in the project, or somewhere in the MIDDLE.  Team members collaborate to place each sticky note in the appropriate column, in a fluid manner that allows for revisiting placement decisions as clarity unfolds. The photo here depicts one of our executive teams in the midst of an EARLY-MIDDLE-LATE analysis.

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The detailed scheduling that comes next is far easier and produces a better result when the team first conducts an EARLY-MIDDLE-LATE analysis instead of jumping directly to task sequencing. Gaining consensus on the big picture first paves the way for a well-understood and easier-to-create detailed schedule.  Moreover, this team process can uncover divergent views regarding task content or scope: team member disagreements about whether an item should happen at the beginning, the end or in the middle often reflect conflicting assumptions about what a particular item entails.  It is far better to uncover and resolve these issues now, before detailed schedules are developed and work has begun. In Chapter 7 of Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach, we provide detailed step-by-step instructions for conducting an EARLY-MIDDLE-LATE analysis and moving from there to the detailed schedule.