Overcoming Unrealistic Deadlines with Better Communication

Co-written with Edwin Gordon

Faced with an unrealistic deadline? Carl Manello and Edwin Gordon explain how to walk the walk of the trusted adviser and overcome negative emotions by gathering data, looking for creative alternatives, presenting your findings convincingly, and initiating collaborative problem solving.

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Program & Project Management based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations.

“He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.”
– Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Unrealistic deadlines are a common conundrum for all project managers.  A stakeholder has already set a deadline.  Intent on meeting the date, they tell you it “must” be met for one reason or another – compliance, a critical business priority, or maybe a commitment made to the Board.  Expectations are set long before anyone defines a detailed project plan.  You join the project as the person responsible for driving the project toward this all-important deadline.  However, your instincts from years of PM experience give you that unsettling feeling that regardless of its importance, the deadline is unrealistic.  What do you do now?  At this critical juncture, you first need to sort out fact from fiction.

Gather Your Data
First, determine if data supports your instincts, or if data shows that your feelings are simply “FUD” – Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt.  Your responsibility is to follow PM best practices and use your PM toolset to determine if the deadline is truly unrealistic. Begin with the following:

Slalom Consultant Edwin Gordon

Edwin Gordon's project and program management experience includes full lifecycle software implementations, business process improvement, change management, training, Financial Services, Telecom, Electronics, CRM, Purchasing and Procurement, Contact Centers, Accounting, Security and Compliance.

  • Identify project work streams and major tasks
  • Establish dependencies between work streams and tasks
  • Build a project plan
  • Review your plan with trusted SMEs
  • Identify and document risks
  • Assess potential impacts to the project

This data will empower you to get past your initial emotional reaction, and discern between FUD and a real problem.  Determine the feasibility of the deadline based on the facts you now have.  You may find that the deadline is in fact achievable.  However, it is more often the case that projects are more complex than they initially appear, and the exercise of building a project timeline often helps to reveal an unrealistic deadline.

Get Creative
If your plan reveals an unrealistic deadline, next ask yourself: “Are there creative solutions that might make the deadline more achievable?”  The following considerations are a starting point:

  • Are there other project management approaches that might accelerate delivery?
  • Are there estimates that appear padded and should be challenged?
  • Can project processes be streamlined for this particular effort without compromising quality?
  • Anticipate objections by the stakeholders – what have you assumed that may not be true?
  • Who could help you find alternatives to reduce the timeline?

Sometimes this exercise gives you a feasible path forward that you can present to the business partner with related risks.  However, you may find that the deadline is still unrealistic.

Craft and Deliver the Message
Now that you have defined a plan, identified the risks, and evaluated alternative approaches, you can prepare to meet with the business partner.  They will not want to hear that a date is unrealistic, so you must diligently prepare for this meeting:

  • Verify and review the data supporting your plan and alternatives.
  • Show the timeline dependencies and isolate the precise reason(s) that the deadline is not achievable.  The goal is to get the conversation focused on specific issues, rather than the high-level concern around “we have to hit the date!”
  • Don’t tell the business partner “this is what we have to do” – present options.
  • Think through potential objections again and ensure you have investigated all options.
  • Document your findings and convincingly show that to achieve the project objectives and achieve success, the date must change.

Demonstrate through the data that project success depends on setting a more realistic deadline.  With the right data and presentation of the facts, you can transform this potentially difficult meeting into a collaborative problem-solving discussion with the business partner. Invite their recommendations about the precise issues and options you have identified. This interaction shows that you are already thinking about creative solutions, and gets them focused on helping solve the problem instead of remaining at a distance and criticizing.  Get your business partner involved with the problem-solving process and begin to build in them the same conviction you have already established – that the deadline is not realistic.

A Path to Success
With your business partner on board, accepting the facts, and appropriately adjusting expectations, you can now focus on the goal – getting the job done RIGHT.  This process can be difficult at the outset, but it gets the project, and your stakeholders, on a path to success.  And, there’s something extra in it for you, too: this exercise in honest communication and diligent problem solving often serves as a crucial springboard to transform you from a “resource” to a trusted adviser.

Authors: Carl Manello and Edwin Gordon

About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

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