Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Casualty of unrealistic deadlines

Ever worked on a project where you pushed the team and yourself to the limits and still felt like struggling to keep your head above water? The likelihood is the project you have taken on (more likely your organisation has signed up for) has been underestimated for effort. Another possibility is that resources were available for the project later than originally planned. In either case, you need to consider the impact on your project and how best to proceed.

The first response to this predicament is to work longer to catch up on promised timelines. That only works for short bursts for some recovery in timeline. Prolonged period of long hours is not sustainable. Working tired means the brain simply does not have the same capacity to consider various scenarios when designing your outputs. In various industries it could lead to different compromised outputs. In software development it could lead to poor design and defects, in government policy development it may cause poor policy, in production lines or medical professions it could cause fatalities. Even if none of these transpire, some may choose to move on. As happens with re-structures, it is your best people that will move on.

You must remember people are your best assets. Breaking them for one project, means inevitable problems for the next one. With the squeeze on resources due to the economic turndown, a lot of people have got used to working over capacity for various reasons – threat to job security, professional pride despite lack of resources among a few. There is however an emotional cost for that. Constant over exposure leads to poor work, make people sick easily. People are more easily irritable and less considerate of others. People’s personal lives suffer and they bring those baggages to work. The work environment suffers, as does productivity.

The biggest casualty of all is innovation dies off. Pre-requisite for innovation is capacity. When everyone is working beyond their limits, there is no room for this. Innovation suffers even if you have people working to constant capacity, as that too does not leave room for experimentation and an element of risk-taking. Even if your organisation starts off being a leader in its field, this kind of work practice will soon ensure others catch up and pass, while you try to find the wood for the trees.

It is easier to point out the problems than trying to correct them. If the organisation is making good money, then the odds are management will be reluctant to change patterns. I cannot put my hand on heart and say I have never been sucked in by this. The most effective way I have found is to plan for 80% productivity of available time when you plan projects. There is always something that needs doing that is typically not factored into project estimates … admin work, sickness, learning, knowledge sharing. If you fall behind it gives you room to catch up by restricting some of these for a period of time, without having to send people over the edge.

Post implementation reviews are a good time to review your practices. Ask the project members to provide feedback and encourage open communication. Then again, when time is at a premium, these reviews are usually skipped. This can be a devil’s own circle. Review your estimation processes continually. Past experience is the best guide for future. Review if there are specific phases of projects that are being under-estimated, type of costs not taken into account properly. It may be that some staff may need up-skilling to avoid the same mistakes. Training needs identified should not be to chastise people, but to acknowledge their willingness to step up from the crowd and help their growth.

Working constantly to unrealistic deadlines creates a goodwill debt for the organisation. Most good employees will accommodate a little bit of it. Eventually, it will come home to roost. A good leader will recognise not only the realities of today, but also will have a feel for tomorrow.

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4 responses to “Casualty of unrealistic deadlines

  1. vickipps April 15, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Another great post, Shoaib. I was especially drawn in by “project you have taken on (more likely your organisation has signed up for) has been underestimated for effort.” I was just having this conversation with a PM in one of my past organizations. He was relating a story where he was given a project, scope, deadline, and team. It took some time to get initial requirements to verify the feasibility of the deadline. Surprise when the team determined they could get some core functionality done with an additional 9 months. The response, “sure you, can have 9-more months, but I want even more functionality.” To make matters worse, the main subject matter expert, the sponsor’s delegate, has been not showing up and cancelling meetings. This is extending the time to get requirements which will extend the duration of the project even if the initial estimates were relatively close. I digress a bit here, but the point is that the organizations and sponsors put unrealistic constraints on projects, yet project managers and teams suffer the consequence. That is why I have made sponsor and organizational education of the true needs of projects a personal charge for myself. Join the campaign for project sponsorship at

    Vicki James, PMP, CBAP

  2. Shakeel Ahmad. September 26, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    In my view the requirements clarification is the key. No matter what your skills are it is hard to get a project done that will be accepted in first go. The only magic is that the user who will use the software must be part of your team, that is also not possible. The key to success is that you have a team that can develop missing features on the fly, for that you need passionate team members who believe in “Customer is the Boss”.

    • Shoaib Ahmed September 26, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks Shakeel. The main focus of the article is not necessarily what customers demand of you, more what your own organisation demands of you and the effects of that. Agree with you, it is a hard balance to get right.

  3. Bas Hasan March 5, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Totally agree with you. I have direct experience managing such project constraint and dealing with unrealistic time simply because of stakeholder’s pride and threat to job security. While maintaining that ‘customer is always right’, a true project management professional must stand firm to the best practices and good conduct in highlighting project risk versus target achievability.

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