Mission Impossible: How to Plan a Project with an Unrealistic Deadline

If you are in information technology, you are probably no stranger to deadlines. But what do you do when the deadline imposed is truly not possible?  This is where you will really exercise those project management skills and where full disclosure will really count.  So, don’t panic.  Plan.

Create a Project Plan

Assuming you have already created a project charter, start your project plan. The project plan will guide you through the things you need to think through, such as the Development Plan, Testing Plan and Training Plan.  Don’t worry about finishing it, you will need input from these areas to finish and you don’t want to get caught up in any fluff.  In fact, remove any fluff that might be in this plan.  Only the essentials need be there.

Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

A WBS will help you identify all the work.  Don’t worry about who will do what or how long each task will take, just get it all written down.  I like to use a spreadsheet for this.  You can get some great spreadsheet templates and lessons from Chandoo.org.  Chandoo is awesome at spreadsheets and his blog is all about making you awesome at them too.  His spreadsheets are particularly useful if you need to present the work breakdown structure to your management.  If not, a simple spreadsheet will work.

Define Activities

Detail out all the activities, sequence them, determine dependencies and create a Network Diagram. Determine who will do what and take that in consideration when creating estimates for the tasks.  For example, you may have a developer who codes very fast but produces buggy code.  So his estimate for coding may be shorter, but the testing estimate may be longer than the work of another developer.  Your staff may not have enough information for detailed estimates at this point in your project.  It’s OK to get high level estimates, just remember to refine those as you move through the SDLC.

Create a Network Diagram

To create a Network Diagram, I like to use Microsoft Office Project because it allows me to create dependencies and is much faster than diagramming it out. Add all the activities and sequence them using the dependency feature.  When you are ready to add resources to each task, review the dependencies to make sure you are sequencing the work for resource constraints as well as functional constraints.

Develop a schedule

Even if the timeline exceeds the deadline by years, it is important to lay it all out. Review the schedule to determine any areas where time can be saved or more resources can be utilized.  I like to create a Resource Report in MS Project and save it to One Note.  This helps me to determine if I have the work evenly distributed among my staff based on their estimates, level of experience, quality of work and most importantly my knowledge of the accuracy of their estimates.

Identify Risks

Identify all the risks that would prevent the success of the project without considering the deadline. Create mitigation strategies for these risks.  Don’t jump right to the deadline being a risk.  Going through this process may help you see opportunities to save time.  It might also help your management or sponsors see the reality of the situation.

Disclose the Schedule and the Risks

Work with management to devise a plan to crunch the schedule to meet their deadline and mitigate the risks. You can also discuss the added risks of the aggressive timeline.  They may agree to refine the scope or extend the deadline, maybe add more resources or repurpose resources.

The most important thing to do in this situation is to be honest and thorough on your analysis in order to show that you are taking the deadline seriously but will not simply tell them what they want to hear.  Who knows, by planning and identifying risks, you may find a way to meet the deadline.

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