On a trip to Paris, I headed away from, instead of toward, the Seine River and wound up elsewhere. A little freaked, my wife panicked and started to worry about our safety. My reply was simple, “Be lost with confidence and no one will bug us.” Working on a project without a baseline is like being lost with confidence. While the day in Paris was an unexpected surprise, project managers need to minimize unexpected surprises. Below, are my thoughts on baselines.

  1. Baseline as a Yard Stick. A baseline can measure project performance. At the very least, a baseline lets the project manager know if it’s completed on time. At best, it communicates that the project is on time, within budget, and the resources are correct.
  2. Basis for Restoring the Project Plan. Most projects have surprises, and how a project manager reacts is in the direct proportion to success. A recovery plan that gets the project back in synch, comparted to the baseline or original plan, clearly communicates action toward success while creating confidence moving forward. Without a baseline, it seems as if the project plan is being made up along the way.
  3. A De facto Baseline. Owners often approve a baseline, but not really. For a variety of reasons, a baseline sits in an approval queue while the project moves forward. Smart contractors or project managers use the baseline submitted as something to measure against. This becomes a “de facto baseline.” If the contractors has a detailed plan, then the de facto baseline serves the purpose. Moreover, unless the project comes to a complete halt; it can’t wait for an approval baseline.
  4. Baseline Support – not Solve – Litigation. A project baseline is a measuring stick. It can clearly show impacts to the project plan. Yes, schedules are used in court. However, a baseline by itself doesn’t settle a claim. It’s used as an early warning so litigation can be avoided. But once in court, the superintendent’s log is far more valuable.
  5. Earned Value Requires a Baseline. Once a baseline is set, Earned Value Mangement metrics can be used. These industry standard metrics provide a gauge to how the project is doing. There is no magic “earned value button” in software, but by simply creating a baseline, you can make earned value available. Yes, earned value management is a science, but not rock science.

I could have used a map in Paris, but for various masculine reasons, I didn’t. A project baseline is the map to project success. It is a guide to provide a true direction for a project. In almost 30 years (I’m ancient) of project management, I would estimate that a little less than half of all projects I worked set a project baseline at the beginning. Even fewer used a baseline correctly. Too bad; it’s a powerful tool.