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“And when will we be able to launch?” Does this question make you feel like a deer in headlights?

As a project manager, you’re likely juggling multiple projects, priorities, and even teams all of the time, and it falls to you to set realistic deadlines for everyone’s work.

With the number of task management systems and project management tools out there, you might think all you have to do is load in your project plan, assign the work and deadlines, and let everyone do their thing (and if you’re an experienced project manager, you probably just laughed out loud).

If you’ve struggled with setting up timelines and setting realistic deadlines, you’re not alone. A 2021 research study conducted by Wellingtone found that only 34% of the 214 organizations surveyed mostly or always completed projects on time.

So let’s talk about the importance of setting realistic deadlines and how to do it right.

Why Is it Important To Set Realistic Deadlines?

Setting realistic deadlines is essential to project success for many reasons, not the least of which is delivering on commitments.

In an agency setting, projects are sold based on projected team capacity.

While pushing things a day or two here and there usually doesn’t have a long-term negative effect, extending timelines by weeks or months can mess up timelines for other work that relies on those team members.

This is not unlike in-house project work. Say you’re managing the launch of your company’s new website. You tell the corporate communications team the site will be ready to go live three months after your kickoff meeting. But one of your stakeholders threw a big wrench in the plan and added some new features one month into the timeline.

Now, you’re looking at five or six months to launch instead of the projected three. This is throwing off the workflow for both your team and the communications team, as you need to reallocate resources to accommodate the new projected end date.

While these examples may have gotten a little specific, they illustrate how not setting realistic timelines can devastate project teams and the entire organization. (Faced with a totally unrealistic project deadlines? See our expert advice on what to do.)

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How To Set Realistic Deadlines: The Textbook Version

If you’ve done any PM training, you’ve probably spent lots of time learning to estimate realistic task time frames. This might be using a top-down estimation technique, a bottom-up estimation technique, or even an analogous estimation process.

For example, let’s say you’re estimating the time it will take to design a homepage for a new website. Whether you have used a time tracker or not, you know that, in the past, it’s taken your designer:

  • 6 hours to mock up an initial design
  • 1 hour for the internal team to review it (designer, developer, project manager, creative director)
  • 1 hour to present to a client or stakeholders
  • 2 hours to make revisions 
  • 1 hour for internal review 
  • 1 hour to re-review with the client 
  • 2 hours to finalize the design and package for development 
  • 1 hour for handoff between design and development 

How many days should you estimate for this process in your project plan? You might want to give it two weeks to complete the process based on your current data. How does that look? Break down the project tasks as follows:

Week 1

  • Monday/Tuesday: mock-up initial design
  • Wednesday: internal review
  • Thursday: client or stakeholder review
  • Friday: client or stakeholder feedback

Week 2

  • Monday: revisions
  • Tuesday: internal review
  • Wednesday: client or stakeholder review
  • Thursday: client or stakeholder feedback
  • Friday: final revisions, package files, and hand off to dev

Now, if the above timeframe feels too aggressive, you can always add some padding to the timeline and stretch this to two and a half or three weeks. Why might you do that? If you know that your stakeholders will have a lot of feedback and your designer won’t be able to turn around revisions on such a tight timeline, you might want to adjust the schedule above proactively.

So, while it doesn’t look like too many hours to fit in that timeframe, you might want to add some buffer time proactively so that work doesn’t drag on and upset your entire schedule.

How To Set Realistic Deadlines: The Real-World Version

Okay, that was fun, but now it’s time for a healthy dose of reality. You must learn to read between the lines when running a successful project with realistic deadlines.

Considering the scenario outlined above, we must account for the people doing the work. If you have a designer who is a total procrastinator or lacks time management skills, you might have to give them a reason to be proactive and create a sense of urgency to get things done. The more you know about your colleagues and their working habits, the easier it is to set realistic deadlines.

Another essential consideration outside of the people working on the project is what we call unknowns or X factors. These things fall outside the scope of typical project planning or estimating but can profoundly impact the timeline and your ability to set realistic deadlines.

Think about it: You’re asked to set up a project schedule, tasks, and due dates at the project’s kickoff. This is when you might know little about the project’s specifics and the stakeholders involved. As you learn more and the project unfolds, you get much more accurate in setting realistic project work deadlines.

Examples of unknowns or X-factors that can impact deadlines and project timelines include:

  • New stakeholders coming into a project at the eleventh hour
  • Extreme weather and global pandemics
  • Mass layoffs or reductions in force
  • New technology or sunsetting of current technology for integrations or dependencies

How To Know It’s Time To Change A Deadline

If you think you need to move a deadline, it’s best to be proactive. For example, if you’re working on a website and it’s scheduled to launch on a specific day with some public relations or marketing activity scheduled (a news release, media planned coverage, or a marketing campaign launch), these activities must happen in the correct order.

To be perfectly candid, the site should be scheduled to be done at least a few days before the PR or marketing campaign kicks off. That way, there's time to work out any final kinks or address any bugs. But we all know how it goes: A late kickoff or some delayed approvals along the way can push us to really tighten up timelines.

So, if it’s looking like things are way behind schedule a week or two before the scheduled launch date, it’s probably a good idea to start coordinating with stakeholders to either speed things up, prioritize what is needed for the launch day, or move the deadline.
Having frequent check-ins can help you take the temperature of the team and keep an eye on the project’s progress. 

Pro tip:

Pro tip:

You may want to do this in smaller groups without the more senior stakeholders to get the team to be really honest with you about the amount of time they need to hit their milestones.

So, how do you know if it’s time to pressure your team members to meet the deadlines or start working to move things around? There are some subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that it’s time to start thinking about re-aligning your schedule to more realistic deadlines. These include:

  • Work being blocked because dependent tasks are incomplete
  • The project scope seems to have changed, and the timeline never accounted for additional work
  • The team is beginning to feel stressed
  • There are increased risks associated with rushing through tasks
  • Additional requirements have been exposed
  • Significant bugs or quality issues have been brought to light 

If you’re still feeling unsure about whether or not a deadline needs to be adjusted, consider creating a contingency plan with your team members. You can ask them to try to meet the original deadline but come up with a checkpoint (well before the actual deadline) to assess progress and make the final decision. 

That way, you’re enabling the team to complete the work as quickly as possible but providing a safety net in case they need one.

What's next?

Learn more about how to set realistic deadlines by checking out our course offerings in the DPM School.

Marissa Taffer
By Marissa Taffer

Marissa Taffer, PMP, A-CSM is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting. In her consulting practice, she helps organizations with project management processes and tools. She also serves as a fractional project manager supporting digital agencies, marketing departments, and other consultancies.