Managing Unrealistic Project Schedules

There you are, making yet another change in your once perfect project schedule; the client keeps changing the scope, the team’s productivity is slipping, and your budget cannot cover the newly requested features. How did this happen? Project Managers of all levels of experience and in every industry will face the dreaded project with an ever-changing schedule. High quality training in negotiation, emotional intelligence, and project scheduling can keep your evolving project on schedule.

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Why Project Schedule Matters

The Project Management Institute’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession Report reveals that 26% of project failures are a direct result of inaccurate task time estimates; further, 23% fail because of inadequate resource forecasting and 11% fail due to team member procrastination. Collectively, that is 60% of project failure being tied to managing time and schedules.Project Schedules 1

Other research, from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which reviewed 10,640 projects from across various industries, found that only 2.5% of the companies successfully completed 100% of their projects. Further, the Harvard Business Review has released a study showing that “one in six projects had a schedule overrun of almost 70%.”

The ability to manage the uncertainty within project can be the difference in project success or failure, including your own career in Project Management.

Root Cause of Project Schedule Problem

With so many projects suffering from out-of-control schedules, the savvy project manager must be able to get to the root cause to stay out of the failure statistics. From before a project is even officially a project, when it is just a concept, there is an ongoing set of evolving demands, requests, and requirements from stakeholders of all kinds. And once that idea is a project, the Project Manager will also be dealing with requests and requirements from the team members. This leads to the term “reasonable constraints,” which as anyone who has been in any project lead or manager role knows, is especially important and very subject to interpretation. Project Schedules 2In the PMI article, Negotiating Realistic Estimates, the authors share, that project constraints can be set arbitrarily and yet accepted; if the constraints are not reasonable and the project schedule cannot be met, “…there are often significant costs—that include lost opportunities, people sitting and waiting for something to do, unhappy customers, lawsuits, penalties, lost credibility, high operating costs throughout the life of the product.”

Project managers need to have a thorough understanding of the key stakeholders in their project, what motivates them, and how they like to work. Project Managers should also understand that different stakeholder groups may have competing interests and deadlines for completion. Project managers can use negotiation skills when necessary to help keep all parties on schedule as well as ensure that unrealistic expectations are dealt with upfront.

Ways to Get Project Back on Schedule

There is not a single solution to getting a project schedule back on track. However, there are many tactics which used alone or in combination, can help you manage constraints and keep the work on schedule. Even if you have been handed an existing project that is off schedule, you can, with skill and experience, get it on track. Consider the specific circumstances of the project and approach the schedule challenge accordingly.

  1. Negotiate
    Alison Green’s article “How to Cope with Unreasonable Deadlines” recommends a “big-picture conversation with your manager” to gain information on the situation, expectations, and perspectives. Other business experts build on this idea and recommend discussions about deadline setting, time consuming factors, and the impact of missing deadlines. In turn, you’ll be better positioned to figure out next steps.
  2. Manage expectations
    From day one, a Project Manager should manage expectations. Always build in buffer for each deadline set. Project managers should explain why a schedule is not realistic and provide a “timeline built on reliable projections for resource constraints and dependencies on deliverables”, says Michelle Colodzin Gunsher, PMI-SP, PMP, senior project manager, Dignity Health.
  3. Risk management
    All project schedules should reflect uncertainty. Manage your risks and incorporate flexibility into your schedule to prevent ongoing schedule revisions, says Alberto José Monzón Belmonte, PMI-SP, project control engineer at Tecnicas Reunidas.
  4. Communicate progress
    Your project status reports should be more than just “red/yellow/green” or percent complete. Your stakeholders, clients, and/or manager need clear information about the time remaining as a more useful and tangible measurement, says Sean Lavery, PMI-SP, senior project planner-scheduler at project delivery firm WorleyParsons.


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Skills Needed to Manage Project Schedules

Scheduling is much more than a calendar. Project Managers need skills in conflict management, negotiation, emotional intelligence, and scheduling to ensure a project stays on track.

Project Schedules 3

Project Managers need a strong understanding of the concepts key to keeping a project on track including both people and technical skills.

Gotta Get Back in Time

When your project is falling off schedule, the answer is not to spend hours and hours working on your project plan file to make it appear to work out. Because that is just your plan, it does not mean it is reality. Emotional intelligence, negotiation, and critical path can help with scheduling which you can actually achieve. But if you happen to find a time-traveling DeLorean, you can give it a try.

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Author profile
Megan Bell
Megan Bell
Project Manager & Writer at Project Management Academy
Megan Bell