What to do if a project deadline is impossible to meet

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Being given an impossible project deadline is unfortunately all too common but there are a number of ways you can try to resolve this problem.

If you have been handed an impossible deadline then your instinct may be to panic. Panicking, however, is clearly not a good use of your time and effort so instead you should begin thinking tactically.

There are a number of ways in which you can approach an impossible project deadline and it will usually depend on individual circumstances as to which approach you choose. It will of course be stressful to be handed a project with a deadline that you believe cannot be met so careful planning and a good strategic outlook will help you to gather your thoughts and approach the problem calmly and rationally.

Here are the various ways I deal with such a situation:

Negotiate

With an immoveable deadline the best initial approach is to negotiate a reduction in the scope of the deliverable with the client or senior management. The main emphasis should be on persuading stakeholders that a complete fully-functioning deliverable without a few bells and whistles is a better option than missing the deadline altogether. Look for any features or functions that are "nice-to-haves" or could be added in a second phase of the project, and recommend removing them from the spec. That way the project may not be as comprehensive as stakeholders would like but it will be delivered on time. It might always be possible to add the missing features as part of a follow-up project. Much better than proceeding and then having to jettison requirements in a scrabble to the end date.

Seek extra people

Another approach is to seek additional resources in the form of more members in the project team. However, be aware that if you don't already have experienced people readily available then recruiting them – even on a temporary basis – may not fully solve the issue if they still need to familiarise themselves with your organisation's working practices. Everyone needs some time to get up to speed. Extra resources can't always save a doomed project and you also need to consider the impact of reassigning them away from their current project. If bringing on additional resources then these need to be planned as part of project mobilisation.

Risk management

If the client or senior management will not budge on the time frame or the scope of the project then make it clear that this is a major risk to completing the project successfully. Since risk management will be part of your planning process, document the fact that the limited time frame is a serious risk to delivering the project. The risk assessment should also indicate ways of mitigating the risk – so document increased resources, decreased scope or an extension of the deadline – even if these have already been ruled out. It may still be possible at a later stage of the project to renegotiate.

Ensure the risk assessment is disseminated to the client and senior management so they have your concerns in writing. Projects often fail when they lose touch with reality so this will help you to manage their expectations; and if you fail to deliver the project on time, at least you have been clear from the outset that this was always going to be a possibility. Offering ways of mitigating risk to avoid missing the deadline helps to make you part of the solution, rather than the person presenting a problem.

Speed things along

Even if you have not been able to negotiate a change in scope or resources still do everything you can to get the project moving quickly without compromising quality, if possible; but accept that quality may well suffer when a deadline is very tight. A good way of progressing a project is to set milestones earlier than they need to be to avoid procrastination on the part of the project team. You do however run the risk of transferring your own stress onto your team as they face their own unrealistic deadlines so consider this carefully; and perhaps not with a newly formed project team. The sponsors of the project can help here by committing to an effective and quick decision-making process with clearly defined delegations of responsibility.

Become more efficient

Put steps in place to increase your own efficiency and you may surprise yourself with how much work can be done in a shorter time frame. For instance, use time management tools to help you and the team work smarter. Committing to checking your emails only once in the morning and the afternoon is another simple way to keep interruptions to a minimum throughout the day and can help you steam through work much more efficiently.

How have you handled an unrealistic deadline on a project? Did your approach work and what was the outcome? Let us know in the comments.

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Posted by Paul Naybour on 20th Jun 2019

About the Author

Paul Naybour is Business Development Director for Parallel Project Training. He is a well known speaker in the APM Branch Network, a Project Management Trainer and Consultant, working for Parallel Project Training.

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