Setting Realistic Deadlines
Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Deadlines are a critical component to any project—and a major source of stress if not set and managed correctly. I recently listened to a colleague share about how her company’s deadline to launch a new software system was pushed up for the fourth time, and it’s nearly 10 months behind schedule. 

Their entire department was literally scrambling to make changes to make it all work. A delay at this level causes blocks in the production system, extreme pressure on the project team, and ultimately increases the cost of the project substantially.

This situation made me think about how many times we don’t set realistic project deadlines. Although setting deadlines is only one component of an overall project management plan, there are ways to prevent major deadline disasters with proper planning and anticipation of what may come ahead. 

Here are a few ways to ensure your plan starts off right and finishes on time.

At the start of every project, outline each project task. Be sure to ask the project team to evaluate it. Then, allow the team to honestly report on the status of an activity—even if it goes against the deadline in the plan. Without honesty, deadlines will slip. It is the main responsibility of the project manager to check that whatever is due is actually delivered. Be sure to hold review meetings and expect accountability from each project team member.


Do not underestimate the amount of time a project will take. Be sure that you allow plenty of time for the people, departments, and additional resources involved in the project to reach their deadlines. Others’ responsibilities and circumstances can be out of your control at times. Build cushion in your timetables. “You need to think real-world strategy,” expresses Michael S. Dobson, the author of numerous project management books. “The challenge is adding essential flex time, which often lowers people’s sense of urgency for completion.”

Be cautious and realistic if upper management or project stakeholders attempt to set impossible deadlines. If they insist, be solution-oriented, organized, and factual.  Put a full strategic plan in place to present your case for the need for a deadline extension.

Be proactive when you miss a deadline. From time to time, it’s inevitable that a project will not hit every deadline. What if you have a deadline that will be missed? It’s time to be proactive. 

  1. Admit that the project is not going to meet the deadline and fully analyze the issues that are causing the delay.
  2. Make realistic recommendations, adjustments, and time frames for these issues and have a good understanding of the entire process.
  3. Put these findings into a solid solution plan and timetable. Be sure to include additional resources required in the plan.
  4. Hold all resources accountable for reaching their deadlines as well. Talk with each resource individually to make sure they understand the plan. 

Once the project is finally completed, learn from the missed deadline experience. Take time to analyze what went wrong and what went right—so that you learn from the experience and adjust your next project plan to be focused and on time.


Editor’s note: This post is adapted from the original post on the Impact Instruction blog.

About the Author

Amy Franko is founder and CEO of Impact Instruction Group, which helps organizations develop their top talent and future leaders through customized leadership and onboarding programs. Her experience within global organizations shaped her skills as a strategic thinker and leader, often providing new perspectives to clients. Amy established and moderates forums for learning executives and is a recognized speaker on leadership development. She is on the board of the Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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