Recipe for Disaster - Unrealistic Deadlines

Ashley Marron CEO, MindGenius14/03/2018

Some project managers like to please and simply try and do the best they can regardless of how unrealistic the challenge they have been asked to manage is.

Whilst this is not necessarily a bad trait in itself, it can lead to a project manager agreeing to impossible deadlines simply to be seen in a positive light by their fellow workers or management, however, there is nothing positive about taking on an unrealistic deadline that you will never be able to accomplish.

I have never allowed myself to be bullied into timelines and estimates that were not wrought out of experience rather than wishful thinking. Often this meant many discussions with clients and managers having to educate them on these things and not work to their uninformed/unrealistic timelines. Asking your team for or agreeing to complete the impossible will completely flatten team morale and productivity along with it, compounding the delivery problem.

However, it is equally important that you understand the motivation for the deadline and you should discuss your concerns with your project sponsor to understand if there are any critical business factors driving the project deadline that you are not aware of. Sometimes it may seem like your manager or sponsor is purposely and foolishly imposing deadlines they know you can’t meet, it may be that they have a very valid reason for needing a quick turnaround.

For example, there may be a business condition that is driving the deadline. There may be some event occurring that this project needs to support. Or your project may be one of a number of initiatives that need to come together at a specific time.

While knowing that a true business need is driving the deadline may not make your challenge any easier, understanding that there was a valid reason behind the need for the quick deadline may further motivate you and your team members to try to achieve it.

Once you understand the motivation for the deadline date, try to adjust the triple constraints of time, cost and scope which are at the core of all projects to increase the chances of success and better manage expectations.

In the situation of unrealistic deadlines, the time constraint is not in alignment with the cost and scope. Talk to your manager about increasing the resources that are available for the project, recognising that adding resources to the project will make the cost go up but equally it may allow you to hit the deadline. Or talk to your client about reducing the project scope. Discuss if there are features and functionality that they can live without for now so that you can deliver the project within the deadline specified.

One aspect of planning a project includes identifying risks and putting plans into place to mitigate those risks. Missing an imposed end date is a clear risk to be managed and discussion needs to be encouraged. Ask the project team, your client, and your manager for their ideas on how to mitigate the risk. Utilising risk management will help better manage expectations early in the project and will also be a way to gather ideas that might clear a path for you to hit the deadline.

On many projects that start with an aggressive delivery date the situation can get worse because the project manager does not effectively manage scope which then results in teams having to do even more work by the deadline date. Disciplined scope management will ensure that you only have to deliver what was originally promised and that any approved changes are accompanied by a corresponding increase in budget and timeline.

Project teams might get a little behind but have confidence that they can make up the time later. However, when you start a project with the deadline at risk, be sure to aggressively manage the workplan diligently as there is no margin for error. As you monitor the workplan, treat missed deadlines as issues and work hard to solve the problems that are causing the slippage. The key to overcoming all these issues is to ensure you engage your team, management, and clients.

Finally, as with any task it’s important to stand back and look inwards and take an honest look at your workplan and your approach for executing the project. Talk to your team, clients, and manager about any ideas they may have for making the project go faster. This will get everyone thinking about being part of a solution.

In addition, perform a self-evaluation of the project workplan to see if there are ways that you can reduce costs and cycle-times.? Look at how you currently deliver projects and how you manage them to see if there are ways that you can accomplish what you need for less time and cost.

Although it appears that you are being held accountable for events and circumstances that are not within your control, you do have control over the processes you use to manage the project.

In summary when presented with unrealistic deadlines try and see if the following approach could help

Firstly, see if you can adjust the triple constraints on time, cost and scope and determine if you can balance the early deadline by increasing resources or reducing project scope.

Secondly, proactively manage risk, scope, and the workplan so that you can better manage expectations and have the best chance for success given the constraints you are under.

Thirdly, engage with your manager, client, and project team to evaluate how you are executing the project. You may discover ideas and techniques that will allow you to deliver the project sooner than you might have first thought possible and prevent the disasters and outcomes that unrealistic deadlines can produce.

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