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Managing and Surviving Imposed and Unrealistic Time Estimates

I am sure you have never been forced to accept and include in your project schedule unrealistic data, most likely resulting from your project sponsor or your boss making a promise on a target end date. Never? Right!

Well, we all know that this happens all the time, the result being that:

  • In most surveys on project management, many project managers and teams complain that they work on unrealistic schedules
  • The same project managers and teams are still being blamed for not meeting those dates
  • Sponsors, bosses and organisations do not seem to be learning anything from this and
  • The same pattern goes on again and again, unresolved.

I tell my workshop participants and the project managers I coach that they should stop complaining about unrealistic schedules and do something about it. I am still appalled at project managers accepting to meet dates that do not make sense, or try to meet them without discussing the affect on cost (fast tracks cost more) or on quality. Eventually they end up having to play the role of scapegoat on a sinking project because they failed to challenge their sponsor, boss or other power, when they applied their magic thinking on these projects.

It is a fact that sponsors and bosses are here to make things happen, and the faster the better. And this is quite alright. It is also a fact that many of them just do not have a clue about what they are asking you to achieve. When I tell project managers that their sponsors or client very often do not understand the conditions required the meet the dates they “force” on them, some are quite surprised. I ask them them why upper management sets such unrealistic goals…do they really think their bosses are that stupid?

Unless project managers present the facts and stop accepting unrealistic dates without conditions, they will not do an effective job of helping their management better understand the nature of the projects in question. When they do understand the situation, they will hopefully provide adequate resources and timeframes. Who’s stupid? The one asking for results or the one not explaining the conditions required and complaining delays are unrealistic…after accepting this situation by default?

Here is an example of such a situation and how a project manager can help the project sponsor or client become a better project stakeholder and supporter. During a recent coaching session, a project manager told me that he was working on a new project involving the development of new injection molded plastic components. They had worked on similar projects for many years and testing and adjustments on the new molds always took between two to five weeks before going into production because of the sheer complexity of this piece of equipment. The project sponsor provided a project end date that did not really make sense, particularly because of this historical constraint. The sponsor was told that the only way the schedule could be met was if the testing and adjustments could be completed in a week, something not achievable for this type of mold. The sponsor went into “magical thinking mode” and told the project manager that, he felt that the testing and adjustment it would go extremely well and that the one week time frame would work.

So what could the project manager do? I told him he had of course to go along with the unrealistic end date….but to make sure he documented in the project charter the fact that this date was based on the sponsor’s assumption of a one-week testing and adjustment period for the new mold. Then once the mold has been tested and the adjustments required to make it work were finally known, I told the project manager that he would have to return to the sponsor with the charter and get his new estimate for the mold adjustments, so that it can be documented again. I told the project manager that his sponsor would learn something important. Among other things, he has to accept ownership for imposed unrealistic delays (and that he will, because he is not an unreasonable person) and that he better leave things he doesn’t know about to those who do..

Many project managers react strongly when I talk about challenging their sponsors and clients on obviously unrealistic imposed project end dates. They think they put themselves at risk by doing that. In fact the contrary happens. If you do not challenge and explain why these schedules are unrealistic:

  • you will have very poor team mobilisation, because your project team will not buy into this schedule and they will work on other projects, rather than be part of a projected failure
  • you will fail to meet the schedule
  • you will be the scapegoat for this project because you accepted it without asking the right questions
  • when you tell them at the end that the project schedule was unrealistic, you will be asked why you did not tell them at the start
  • you are on your way out as a successful project manager

Project sponsors and clients are not unreasonable, they are not stupid. They try to do their best with the information they have at hand and the promises they are also forced to make. They deserve better from project managers than silently working on unrealistic delay and failing. And unless project managers do their job of challenging, informing and counselling their sponsors and clients in matters of realistic delays on their projects, they will continue to work on projects where a four feet thick concrete slab supposedly will cure in two days or where the paint will already be dried before we apply it. I have seen that in project plans but it has never happened in factual physical reality. And everyone can understand that when you explain to them, including project sponsors and clients.

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