Project Management

What to do when impossible project deadlines are common procedure

It happens with almost every project: The business unit demands an impossible timeframe for completing the work required. Project management mentor Tom Mochal offers advice for a member who is struggling to meet project deadlines.


Columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format. Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

Question: How do you handle a business unit's impossible deadlines?
I’m constantly running into projects that have a production date put out there by upper-level business management that then gets cast in stone. Then the business side can't define their requirements, and they continually change the requirements until the construction phase is squeezed into an almost impossibly small time window. The dates never move. We’re using a waterfall methodology with defined gates. Any ideas on managing this problem? —John

Answer: Take control of your project and stop being a victim
There’s a good answer from a project management perspective, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to struggle to make it work in your environment. The key is to utilize the following tools, which are essential to project management:
  • Risk management
  • Issues management
  • Scope management
  • Proactive communication

When you start a project, you need a plan that includes some type of project definition or charter as well as a work plan. The planning process should also include identifying risks and ways to mitigate them.

For instance, if you don't think you can hit the imposed end date, now is the time to say something to upper management. When you do, management will start to hear that the end date is at risk before the project even begins. As part of risk identification, you can ask the project team and your management staff for ideas on how to mitigate the risk. Ideas might include steps such as hiring extra staff or leaning heavily on users to get their requirements in on time. Again, there’s value in identifying the project risks and working with others on risk resolution. This process also helps to better manage expectations from a communication standpoint.

The work plan and proactive communication also help users better understand their roles. For instance, ask these questions:
  • Do users really understand the need for timely feedback on requirements and the impact on the project if they’re late?
  • Do users understand the required due dates so that they can better plan their time?

You can raise this issue with management as a project risk and start to manage expectations of what will happen if the requirements come in late. It will also give you more of a foundation for the follow-up communications that may be required if the users’ dates start to slip.

Demand that good planning continues
As the project progresses, continue to manage risks, issues, and communication proactively. For instance, if the users miss their dates in spite of your risk management plans, you need to address the issue. Issues management (problem identification and resolution) is needed.

You should get your team, management, and stakeholders involved. Ask your manager for input in resolving this problem that threatens the completion date. Since you don’t have direct authority over the users, you need to get more accountability from business managers to help resolve project resource problems. Your managers and sponsors are also in a position to manage priorities to meet deadlines. Again, if the problem can’t be resolved perfectly, at least you’re continuing to manage expectations.

You should also continue this proactive project management approach in other areas. For instance, if a person leaves your project team, you have an issue that affects deadlines. Explain the problem and the consequences, and ask for help in determining the best options for going forward. If the users add more requirements, invoke scope change management and make sure everyone knows the impact the changes will have on the budget and schedule. Don't proceed with the changes unless the sponsor has approved the extra time and budget necessary to make the changes.

Dealing with the politics
Although it appears that you’re being held accountable for events and circumstances beyond your control, you do have control over the processes you use to manage your project. Manage risk, issues, and scope proactively, and utilize your manager and your sponsor to try to get everyone focused on meeting the aggressive deadlines.

You also have the ability to manage expectations through proactive communication. You should focus on pointing out cause-and-effect relationships. As an example, you can describe the impact to the project if requirements-gathering deadlines aren’t met.

You may not be able to hit your imposed deadlines and budget. However, by utilizing disciplined and proactive project management processes, you at least have a shot at success. You’ll have a much better chance of managing expectations and convincing management to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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