"The Project Must Be Finished On This Date - Or Else!"

These are words of desperation, a client or senior manager who's got his back to the wall.

I was faced with this exact situation on a consulting job a few weeks back, the business owner, facing heavy penalties for late delivery was desperate for answers and didn't know a better way to react.

Unfortunately, what he hoped were a matter of weeks to completion, in my mind were more like months to completion! Surely he could see that?

I wrote an article a few weeks back about Project Manager's being either overly pessimistic or optimistic, and this scenario was now playing out right before my eyes: on the one hand the overly optimistic owner thinks that by demanding impossible deadlines he'll force the project to the quickest resolution possible.

But on the other hand, the Project Manager in me immediately took the pessimistic, almost defensive stance. I think to myself, I need to deliver this guy some bad news, no way can the project finish by then, I need to make him see sense, set a realistic and measurable plan and stick to it.

While his hope of an early finish were unrealistic, equally my initial view was a cop out, it's the lazy way of doing things, anyone can deliver a worse case scenario, that's easy, although there is some skill in delivering the message and not getting immediately booted off the job.

Below I want to explore why clients, owners and senior manager's might take this approach, when Blind Freddy can see what's going on, why do they keep up this charade rather than having a pragmatic discussion about what's actually achievable. 

Firstly, here are a couple of reasons why people would make these unrealistic demands, and in most instances you'll find it's probably a couple of these combined?

  1. They don't know any other way. Since Noah's Arc was built, leadership by setting unrealistic deadlines and threatening dire consequences has been the only approach for some, however now that whips are no longer part of the modern manager's tool box, becoming less of an option, but this approach is sadly still common.
  2. They actually have to deliver on that date! As untenable as that may be to the realist in us, when faced with a looming deadline and stiff late delivery penalties, of course the embattled manager is going to go for that date and we need to recognize and be sympathetic to that fact.
  3. To save face or blame shift. How often have you heard the "I told them that was the date…..yada yada yada....!" and always directing the blame at someone other than themselves. This approach is trotted out when fingers start pointing and people are looking for a scapegoat to sacrifice to the senior management gods.

Before we look at how to deal with this situation, let's first look at what happens when you shoot for an unachievable goal.

  1. The cost of pushing too hard. Shooting for unachievable goals usually goes hand in hand with throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the job. All the resources you can deploy to get the job done just about always means your efficiency goes down and your re-work goes up.
  2. Fast Tracking. You try to do work out of sequence to parallel or attack multiple work fronts. A viable approach when controlled, but another efficiency killer if inputs like engineering design and procurement are similarly behind or mis-aligned with your new work sequencing, inefficiency and frustration reign supreme.
  3. Lost opportunity. Most of all, opportunities to limit the damage are lost, there is nothing worse that throwing the budget out the window to achieve a goal but falling short. You then have to deal with a blown budget plus the consequences of being late.

So, what can be done when faced with this situation.

  1. Give it a go! There has to be an objective assessment and attempt made to develop a project plan to meet the required date. Like I said earlier, the easy cop out is just to throw your hands up in the air and say it's too hard and can't be done. You must prove beyond reasonable doubt it cannot be done to be taken seriously when proposing an alternate plan!
  2. Propose scenario's. Show how the existing plan might be achieved if throwing all your resources at the project might get it across the line, show the impact this will have on your budget, quality and other projects you might take resources from, this might in itself be enough for the stubborn manager to re-think his unrealistic demands.
  3. Be realistic! Many times on poorly performing projects the estimate and schedule were wrong to begin with. I have often seen projects running at an SPI/CPI well below 1.0, that are not reflecting this in their estimate to complete (ETC). This says to me, "yes we have run over budget and behind schedule up until now, but starting tomorrow something magical is going to happen and we are going to achieve efficiencies in line with our baseline budgets"……. not going to happen! Be real, if the efficiency trends are undeniable, forecast based on what you are actually achieving, PLUS, any inefficiencies you are likely to incur by accelerated work.
  4. Do it once, do it right! If you have said the original project plan can't be achieved, you better make sure your re-plan is realistic. Sometimes projects re-plan too optimistically because they are scared or pressured not to show the full impact, but in a couple of months have to go through the process again, this kills your credibility.
  5. Detail the cost savings. If you finish a project in a controlled manner you may in fact have some savings and these can be offset against the late penalties.
  6. Talk to the customer. Maybe the client is not ready to take possession of the product and a delay would suit them. This can be the case if your product is part of their larger project and in many cases taking delivery would be more of an inconvenience if they are not ready for it, and maybe the good will you have built up with client will have him agree to not penalize you, you never know unless you ask.

Finally, we need to differentiate between, challenging/stretch targets and impossible targets. 

Straight up, let's just bin the impossible target method where the leader thinks that by setting an impossible target people will work their hearts out and get somewhere near the mark. The opposite happens in fact, this is one of the most de-motivating tactics possible. As soon as an employee thinks a target cannot be achieved, he won't even try and in some cases will deliver worse than his best effort.

Challenging or stretch targets on the other hand can be a great motivator, people inherently love a challenge and if the target is conceivable, regardless of the degree of difficulty, most people and teams will attempt it, this is the best approach.

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