Project Management

Managing projects with unrealistic deadlines

Unrealistic deadlines are practically a fact of life with IT projects. Here are some ways that can help you manage your project when you have no time to waste.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management techniques.

I am a project manager in a company that always seems to be short of staff on projects. It seems that whenever I get a project, my manager or the sponsor imposes a deadline that we cannot possibly meet. I keep telling them the deadline is unreasonable, but they do nothing about it. I don’t want to be seen as a complaining person, but if you don’t meet your deadlines [at my company], your annual performance review is impacted negatively. Any advice?


I often get letters from project managers who ask how they can do a better job of getting their team to meet their deadlines. Your question gets at this same subject, but the twist is that you are the one trying to meet deadlines that you think are unrealistic.

Understand the motivation for the deadline
First, discuss your concerns with your manager and see if there are any factors driving the project deadline that you may not be aware of. Although 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 drove 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.

If you find, however, that the deadlines are arbitrary and are not the result of an identifiable business driver, then your manager may be attempting to set a “stretch objective” by seeing if you can perform over and above normal expectations.

Managers should beware of this tactic, however, as it can end up making a manager look like the "boy who cried 'wolf.'" If your manager often relies on this tactic, there will come a time when there will be a firm business justification for an aggressive end date, but no one will take it seriously because of the manager's irresponsible handling of deadlines in the past.

Once you understand the motivation for the deadline date, you can use the following project management techniques to increase the chances of success and better manage expectations.

Try to adjust the triple constraints of time, cost, and scope
All projects require some time and cost to create the deliverables agreed to in the project scope. When one of these constraints is out of balance, at least one of the others needs to be adjusted to get them back in alignment. For example, if your budget is cut, you need to reduce the scope or increase the time to deliver.

In your case, 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. Adding resources to the project makes the cost go up but may allow you to hit the deadline.

Also, talk to your client about reducing the project scope. See if there are features and functionality that they can live without for now so that you can deliver the project within the deadline specified.

Utilize risk management
One aspect of planning a project includes identifying risks and putting plans into place to mitigate those risks. In your case, if you don't think you can hit the imposed end date, now is the time to say something.

When you do, your manager and your client start to hear that the end date is at risk before the project even begins. Ask the project team, your client, and your manager for their ideas on how to mitigate the risk. Utilizing 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.

Utilize scope management
On many projects, you start with an aggressive delivery date, and then the situation gets worse because the project manager does not effectively manage scope. Then you end up having even more work to do 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.

Aggressively manage the workplan
In many projects, you might get a little behind but have confidence that you can make up the time later. However, when you start a project with the deadline at risk, be sure to manage the workplan diligently. You have no margin for error.

If early due dates start to slip, you are going to be in trouble early. As you monitor the workplan, treat missed deadlines as issues and work hard to solve the problems that are causing the slippage.

Again, get your team, management, and clients involved. If your clients are causing delays, hold your business managers more accountable for helping to resolve project resource problems. If the problems cannot be resolved perfectly, at least you are continuing to manage expectations.

Look for process improvement opportunities
Finally, 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.

For example, if your manager insists on completing the project earlier than what you have specified, ask him what techniques he could suggest to make the earlier date. Document any suggestions you receive. Show your client the project plan as well.

If you are not achieving the end date they expect, ask them for ideas on how to shorten the project. See if they can help you come up with a solution to the scheduling problem.

In addition, perform a self-evaluation of the project workplan to see if there are ways that you can reduce costs and cycle-times. For example, are there some different development techniques that you could try that might move you toward an earlier end date? Could you utilize a Joint Application Development (JAD) session to gather requirements more quickly than through traditional interviewing techniques?

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.

Bottom line
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.

First, see if you can balance the early deadline by increasing resources or reducing project scope.

Second, 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.

Third, work 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 that you might have first thought possible.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

Sound familiar?
Does NT’s complaint sound like what goes on in your workplace? Have you ever quit a job because of unrealistic deadlines? Share your comments by posting them in a discussion below or by sending us an e-mail.


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