7 Steps to Determine and Meet Realistic Project Deadlines

by Jan Schiller

Struggling to meet project deadlines? Realistically determining and meeting project deadlines is all about a strong work plan combined with an excellent, universally adopted project change management process. Here is how to avoid the whooshing sound deadlines make as they whiz by.


Here are seven steps to creating realistic project deadlines 

Collaboratively develop a work plan that aligns with the project charter and delivers the expected result. This takes time. Quite often (every time, in my experience), this requires aggregating many sources of information into one centralized location, making it possible to understand how an organization’s resources are being utilized. I use this process, supported by a tool that has the required functionality:

  1. List the actions. Actions start with verbs. 
  2. Sort, scrub, and group the actions. The name of the group of actions is the name of the result produced by performing the actions. If the result is not known, the actions are not needed. 
  3. Sequence the actions according to the solution delivery process in a meaningful and applicable way to produce the result. 
  4. Estimate the actions using effort and duration estimating techniques.
  5. Assign the actions to resources. All work plans refer to the same centralized list of resources. 
  6. Sequence the actions according to resource assignments. 
  7. Review the result with the people performing the work to confirm estimates, identify missing work or unnecessary work, and confirm sequencing. 

The work plan should contain all the work (nothing more, nothing less) that aligns with the project’s scope. 

In my experience, about 40 percent of the work is not captured in the initial work plan, resulting in a schedule that could be off by about 40 percent. Progressive elaboration of the work plan is required. 

The work plan should reflect all resources with the appropriate capacity and capabilities to perform their role and deliver the result. Availability is not a skill. Developing the work plan’s content and estimates should involve the resources doing the work. 

Resist the urge to confuse a big budget with project success because money does not do the work (people do). Focus on the discipline required to launch a project only when the resource capacity and capabilities exist to launch effectively. 

The work must be properly sequenced and evaluated to ensure resource capacity is not exceeded. Occasional, necessary overtime is sometimes unavoidable. Avoid burnout by ensuring that working overtime is not a regular occurrence. 

Humans can perform one action at a time. Even though humans can switch between many actions, creating a work plan that recognizes this constraint is best. 

The effort to develop the work plan must be commensurate with the nature of the expected result. For example, a complex solution achieved in a complex environment involving more than one organizational function should have a work plan, even if the estimated duration is two weeks (which may be referred to as ‘sprint planning’). 

What makes this approach effective? 

This approach achieves a shared understanding of the mental model of how the expected result will be achieved and what the organization needs to commit to realizing the benefits of that desired result. The work plan is aligned with reality.

When done well, this approach provides the basis for open, honest, timely communication of the project’s progress against the plan (including schedule deadlines). 

Without this approach, project leader credibility diminishes, and the organization will likely be eternally experimenting with success.

What should a project leader do when the deadline appears to be missed? 

Share that information openly, honestly, unbiased, and timely. Share the facts only, such as the planned and actual dates, a brief, brilliant explanation of the gap revealed by impact or variance analysis, and alternatives for bringing the project back on track. Answer stakeholder questions until there are no more questions.

Have a widely understood project change management process that is consistently applied. Know the difference between a variance and a change. 

How can project deadlines be effectively prioritized? 

Deadlines are associated with projects; the projects must be prioritized in the organization’s project portfolio. At a minimum, requirements should be prioritized in a product backlog. The key is to keep people focused on what is essential (different from what is urgent) and what matters most to the organization and the world. 

An organization needs a universally understood and consistently applied process of transforming an idea into a project launch (usually called ‘business justification’) and the criteria by which the projects are ranked. Projects should be discreetly prioritized to avoid a long list of “critical” projects. More importantly, priority values must be defined, and those definitions universally agreed to and applied. 

Deadlines should be coordinated and aligned with the organization’s overall activity to mitigate the risk of undesirable scenarios at implementation. Results are what matters; the rest is all noise. The key is to be focused on the right way to achieve the result. The fascinating part is that a result may look like a win even if the underlying process was not a win. 

“When forced to work within a tight framework, the imagination is taxed to produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.” ~~T.S. Eliot.

There is something to be said about deadlines.

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