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They may start from a promise made from sales or creep up slowly within your projects, but I think we can all agree that unrealistic project deadlines are becoming increasingly, dare I say, expected in the fast-paced industries we are working within. 

Project managers are put in situations that ultimately set us up to fail by forcing teams to overwork to meet a deadline that in many cases, doesn’t even have a firm reason. 

I’ve had a lot of experience working through strategies to get everyone through unrealistic project deadlines with as minimal of an impact as possible. 

I’ve supported team leadership as well as been front and center in tough conversations with project stakeholders. Conversations like these ensure everyone has what they need to get the level of quality that is expected (even with the unrealistic project deadline) and deliver a successful project.

How To Tell If A Project Deadline Is Realistic

Project deadlines are a matter of opinion and perspective, and there may be a lot at play when the client is pushing for a particular date. 

In their mind, a deadline can seem realistic because they may not understand all that needs to happen in the process of getting the product to that final end date.

Start with these steps:

  1. Complete a work back exercise. Identify every step that needs to be completed in backwards order to initially determine if the timeline is realistic and if there are any time constraints.
  2. Understand the motivation for the deadline. What are the key factors or milestones in this initiative so you can better evaluate how you can deliver within it? There could be an important business need that hasn’t been communicated. This will help you determine what, if anything, can be cut from the scope to deliver within the set timeframe.
  3. Determine the resources you need for every single task. This allows you to determine if you need to add more but also see if the original team assigned can actually complete the work and if burnout can be avoided.
  4. Get a second pair of eyes on the work back exercise, resource plan, and project plan. Someone like a designer or developer may be able to better determine if you can skip steps, remove dependencies, shorten the amount of time to complete, or overlap certain phases or agile feature sets.

4 Strategies For Dealing With Unrealistic Deadlines

Let’s take a look at some strategies to strengthen your will to push back and stand your ground, while still being empathetic towards the client and project team's needs.

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1. Document the process and expectations

We want to ensure everyone understands how we are going to get to the endpoint so that we don’t waste time figuring it all out along the way. You may not feel like you have control over the events or circumstances that set the deadline, but what you do have control over is the process in which you attempt to achieve delivery by that date.

Here’s what to do:

  • Clearly define everyone's role and what is expected of them in the kickoff—both your internal team and anyone on the client side. They also play a huge role in how we meet the deadline. A RACI is a great place to start with this.
  • Create a process map outlining how the team will flow through each phase.
  • Create an approval flow with dates and stakeholder accountabilities. This holds the client accountable so it doesn’t all weigh on you and your team. They need to be strict on their side with feedback, approvals, and other resources that may be needed to achieve this unrealistic project deadline.
  • You can even go as far as creating a communication plan so everyone knows where to communicate what information and who to go to for what.

2. Increase resources or reduce the project scope.

One or two more people added to the team may be just what you need to hit that deadline. Work with your resource manager to determine who else can be on the project for the entire timeline or certain phases. Teamwork makes the dream work 😁

Important note

Important note

Make sure if new resources are coming in during an in-progress phase, that they already have all the knowledge transferred and can start day one on the tasks you need them to complete.

Also, work with your sales rep and the client to reduce the scope. This could be an MVP version of the SOW or a requirement for the client to cut down on lower-priority features that aren’t a must-have to be completed for the launch date. Keep in mind that this will come with either a cost increase or decrease depending on what is decided so you will have to handle that conversation with your client.

3. Aggressive management of the work plan

In order to meet tight deadlines, you need to be on top of everything and ensure everyone on the team, including the client, is too. 

D0ing the following multiple times a week will help you stay on time:

  • Daily standups: These could include the client, so that you obtain feedback in real-time and often. This means fewer roadblocks for your team to run into or for you to clear.
  • Timeline reviews: Make it your laptop background if you have to! It is so important for you to be referencing the timeline and looking ahead constantly so you can mitigate risk and be proactive about moving potential barriers that will impede your team from completing their tasks in the time required.
  • Process checks: Check in weekly (at the least) about how the team is moving through the project process. This will also allow you to remove barriers before they become too difficult to fix or avoid in a short period of time.
  • Estimate even the most trivial task: This allows you a detailed and realistic view of the tiniest thing that may throw your timeline into the danger zone. Project management tools can be valuable in this estimate and tracking.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

This is of such high importance. If you feel like you are nagging your team members and clients, you’re doing it right. Push yourself into an uncomfortable place by over-communicating. 

It is the only way to ensure everyone:

  • Has what they need to work efficiently
  • Keeps on top of risks and barriers
  • Is accountable for what they are responsible for. This includes the client. They can’t delay or make scope changes and expect your team and you to still commit to the deliverables you decided on at the beginning of the project schedule.
  • Continually talks about the timeline, the reason behind how the plan is laid out, and the risks of cutting it short. The more you talk about it the more likely it will stick and become understood and a priority for the client and project team.

What To Do If A Project Deadline Is Totally Impossible

You’ve asked the questions, and you’ve reworked the process and the timelines but still just can’t get the set deliverables to be delivered by the deadline. You are a wizard at time management but really, the only thing left is to have a tough conversation with the client about why it is impossible and what you have done to come to this conclusion.

Just say no.

Yes, I just said that. We think that we aren’t allowed to say no, but it can actually save everyone a lot of time, money, and stress if we can just fall back on the value of delivering a high-quality product. But in order to do that, we need to have the time to execute. 

Unrealistic expectations and unrealistic timelines lead to so many more problems that cause project failure (learn how to avoid failure here), when compared to just saying no. I’m not saying this is your first choice but it is something to keep in the back of your mind when working through the other strategies for unrealistic project deadlines.

The Project Management Triangle

the project management triangle infographic
The golden triangle of cost, scope, and time.

The golden triangle of project management states that time, scope, and cost need to be balanced within a project to deliver a quality deliverable. Maybe the client isn’t a fit for your organization if they do not value your expertise in the requirements behind delivering the quality they are expecting.

Or, you can use the iron triangle (with the pillars of good, fast, and cheap) to get your point across.

iron triangle infographic with pick two written in the middle and good fast and cheap in each corner
You can’t have all 3 sides of the iron triangle.

If you want a good product fast, it’s not going to be cheap. If you want a cheap product fast, it’s not going to be of good quality.

I understand there are caveats to this strategy due to how much authority you may have, but be an advocate for your team and present leadership with reasons why it is not ok to continue to take on projects with these unrealistic deadlines.

You’re Halfway There

No one likes to be in this situation, of course, but we have all been there or will be at some point in our careers. We learn from the experience and it makes us better PMs. We are more easily able to have tough conversations with our clients about  unrealistic project completion dates and any other pushback we may need to do. Did someone say scope creep?

Everything in this article is just elevating the skills you already have so you are halfway there!

If you are experiencing projects being sold with unrealistic project timelines or experiencing missed deadlines continuously where you work, you might want to raise it as a concern and look into how it can be avoided. 

Ask to be a part of the sales process. This will allow a timeline expert to be evaluating the delivery dates (and scope management) in a proactive way so that when the project is won and kicked off there is less stress and you can all execute your roles with ease.

You can find more project management strategies here, and don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter for more how-to guides that get into the nitty gritty of project management.

Kelly Ostrowercha
By Kelly Ostrowercha

Kelly Ostrowercha is a freelance project management leader with 15+ years of experience successfully developing people, teams, and processes in digital agencies, small start-ups and larger corporations, with a people-first mentality.