Deadlines are a familiar word in project management. It is a dreaded moment for many project managers and it brings a lot of pressure on the need to deliver on time. It can leave a lot of clients disappointed and a lot of project managers frustrated due to the inability of the project manager to meet the set deadline.

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The reasons for failure to meet such deadlines differ and range from poor time management, unavailability of resources, and impossible deadlines from the onset of the project. These cause deadline days to become days of sadness and intense friction between project manager and client, rather than a day of celebration for everyone involved.

A few project managers have gotten their names soiled with a reputation for consistent failure to deliver projects. Sadly, these project managers are usually overworked, running on the edge to meet their client’s demands but usually end up disappointing them. Painfully, as their reputation goes down the drain for yet another disappointed client, they remember that they always knew that they never could make the deadlines with the available resources.

The question then arises: how do we deal with impossible deadlines? Do we automatically turn clients away because we think we cannot deliver on deadline day? Or are we willing to stake our reputation by attempting the impossible? We hope to find answers by the end of the article.

Incubation Period

The first thing we would love to address here is the incubation period. There is a minimum acceptable time that a project must run through for it to be successful; anything short of that time would lead to the definite demise of the project no matter the amount of resources available.

My favourite example to use here is that you cannot shorten pregnancy from nine months to one month by making nine women pregnant. Though some babies born prematurely at five months have survived to adulthood, they had to be handled with intensive care and could not be treated like full term babies.

Every project manager should know the minimum incubation period for their project and must never be strong muscled into agreeing with a time frame that is less than that, even with a promise of never ending resources.


Communication is another key to handling impossible deadlines to be able to make meaningful impact. Effective communication helps the project manager to express fears about the challenges surrounding the project and either negotiate for a deadline extension or request for other factors that can help compensate for the time constraints.

The absence of communication with stakeholders creates a false impression that all is well and the project manager has it all covered even when he seems to be losing control. Effective communication helps the team to measure each milestone within the overall timeline of the project and decisions can be taken collectively on the deadline as best deemed fit by all stakeholders.


Creativity is another skill to be engaged while dealing with unrealistic deadlines. A project manager must realize that playing strictly by the books is unlikely to bring the desired results in terms of saving time. As a project manager, you need to ask yourself, “What other routes and processes can help me get to my destination faster?” This should not be taken to imply seeking unhealthy shortcuts or with the primary intention of cutting corners. The question to be asked here is, “What is the shortest possible route to getting the desired result without compromising quality?”

Interaction with the Decision Makers

Too many times impossible deadlines come from decision makers to drive productivity and efficiency from the team. Unfortunately, the line existing between aggressive deadlines that improve team performance and unrealistic deadlines that cause a lack of trust as well as unimaginable pressure on the team is such a thin line.

The project manager needs to seek adequate information from the decision makers about the deadline so that he can decipher if the deadline was born out of necessity or if it is just in a bid to drive the team into efficiency. This would help in understanding the possible consequences that may result from such deadlines. For example, when time becomes a very crucial factor, quality sometimes pays the price for such deadlines. Only proper previous interaction with the decision makers can prevent a boomerang of such consequences in the future to the project manager.


It is important for any project manager given a tight rope to pull in terms of deadlines to do some research before proceeding to work. He needs to find out if other project managers in the firm are being given similar deadlines and how they have been able to cope with such vis-à-vis giving the required project quality. He may also need to look beyond his firm to discuss with project managers who have worked on similar projects with an impossible time frame, and this would also help him learn from their valuable process and realize points in which time can be saved, thus helping to recover the already constrained time.

Researching literature and current technological resources may also help in saving time. Discovery of new technological advancements designed to save time may be the saving grace of a project manager.

Break Down the Project

It is harder to manage projects as a whole running from step to step compared to when it is broken into its project phases. Some phases of a project can only be done upon completion of some pre-requisite phase, and as such they should be ordered to ensure that there’s no lag in the transition for these phases. Other project phases may be run simultaneously (read more on project dependencies).

For example, if a house is to be built, the foundation has to be laid before construction work can begin. The procurement of materials for every phase can be done when the foundation is on-going so that material procurement doesn’t delay the other phases. Plastering, tiling, plumbing and electrical works may be run simultaneously.

The project manager must ensure effective monitoring of these component parts so he does not lose control of his project in a bid to divide the work into component parts. An understanding of lead-time and lag time would aid in proper implementation of this.

Be in Charge, Handle the Pressure

Too many project managers lose control of their projects as the deadlines draw nearer. They unconsciously switch into panic mode that makes them error prone, increasing their likelihood of making mistakes and having to redo some part of the project despite the time constraints.

A project manager must see pressure as a positive tool that brings out his best in order to thrive under it. The true test of a project manager during execution is premised on his ability to make correct split second decisions that may be project defining. A project manager must learn how to remain calm and keep his head straight even when all doesn’t seem to be going to plan. The project manager must understand his pivotal role to the success of the project and learn to keep his act together no matter the circumstance.

Plan for the Unexpected

The time limitation doesn’t rule out the unforeseen circumstances (issues, risks and uncertainties) that almost always pop up during project execution. They sometimes require special attention and, if not planned well, may consume all the time allocated to the project. The project manager needs to be very flexible to accommodate such surprises so that he’s not thrown into disarray.

The project manager should strengthen his problem solving skills so as to attack issues as they arise. He must understand that he is walking on a thin rope with regards to time and his inability to tackle surprises as appropriate may mean doom for his project.

Get the Team Fully Involved and Informed

The temptation to not trust team members to be able to deliver as scheduled may be overwhelming for a project manager, and that may be his undoing. The project manager must be able to communicate effectively the deadlines to his team and why it has to be so, and answer whatever questions the team members ask so as to know that they are all on deck in working towards beating the deadline.

The project manager’s ability to delegate would go a long way in determining success in the project as the key stakeholders may accede to requests for more team members. A failure to manage team members properly would truncate the overall desire to beat the impossible deadline.

We hope you have been able to learn more about dealing with impossible deadlines. They will inevitably happen to every project manager and may sometimes be the defining point for their career. Prepare yourself for it and it may shoot your reputation up to the skies as that project manager who is always on time.