It Must Be Finished By This Date, Or Else! – Project Plan

These are the words of desperation, a client or senior manager who’s got his back to the wall, their project plan is not working!

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!

I wrote an article a few weeks back about PM’s being 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 setting tough deadlines he’ll force the project to the quickest resolution.

But on the other hand, the Project Manager in me immediatey takes the pessimistic, almost defensive stance, I think to myself, no way is that going to happen, I need to deliver this guy some bad news, 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 do this and when this happens to you as a Project Manager, how best to handle it.

Firstly, here are a couple of reasons why people would make these unrealistic demands, and in most instances you’ll find it’s 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.
  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.
  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…!” get trotted out when fingers start pointing and people are looking for a scapegoat.

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. You work out of sequence to parallel or fast track activities. Another efficiency killer and if inputs like engineering design and procurement are similarly behind or mis-aligned with your new sequencing, inefficiancy and frustration reign supreme.
  3. Lost opportunity. Most of all, when cool heads prevail and it is clear the original date cannot be met, but this is ignored, opportunities to limit the damage are lost.

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, they won’t even try and in some cases will deliver worse than their 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.

Learn how to develop a PMBOK based Project Plan to avoid these pitfalls – CLICK HERE


  1. says

    Well said and almost always happens with unsurmountable deadlines. Can most always be worked out but still have competitiors claiming they can meet it and will in most cases get the job because they say they can or do have the resources. What is sad is that in most cases they will not meet the deadline also and if it is not a repeatable account it does not help your bottom line. As you said with the unattainable deadline and the use of the resources you have available you will lose not only your reputation but the margins you bid the job with. Also even if there is not penalties there may be a scale they use on how late the job along with NCR’s that will affect future jobs. The only good thing is that if you are a small portion of a large project with an unsurmountable deadline in most cases the rest of the project is more than likely on the same unatainable schedule. You are most certainly correct about coming up with a realistic plan and deadline and presenting that to the customer and if you have a working relationship the truth will get you where you need to be and if not you have done your best. In a lot of cases it may not be your customer you have to worry about but someone in your own organization. Very good subject and thanks!

    • says

      Thanks Mark, you raise some very good points, especially the pressures of competitors that don’t actually know what they’re bidding, this is where your knowledge can be detrimental, to winning at least.

  2. Carlos R Muskus R says

    A very usefull and logic approach to re think and handle frequent state of being at most of the projects, where as usual , not all the related people share the same knowledge and skills, neither the commintment on same efforts , responsabilities

  3. Mrutyunjaya says

    Really it is good analysis. Fact is that Project Planning, Control and Monitoring should in proper place from the begining of the project. If the project is delayed due to any reason it is because of lack of monitoring or assessment of project problems. If closely monitoring the project from the start date, the small slippgae can be covered up within the stiopulated period ( say- catch up plan).

    If the project is 5year duration and delayed by 1 year in the middle of project, no one can bring it to original schedule what ever the efforts can be put ( extra monetary as well extra labour). Secondly the long lead item (say manufactring time is 24 months) is rejected at the 4th year of the project themn how to cover up project.

    In that case, it should be discussed with customer and new reallistic dtae to be formed up rather than hiding the total picture.

    controlONCE the project is delayed due to any reason, it should be ident

  4. says

    Jaya, you’re right such major constraints being introduced in the project cannot generally be covered and this requires an open and mature discussion to examine the options.


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