An unrealistic project can happen to anyone. It’s one thing to put together a project plan that makes sponsors happy and has a good chance of being approved. It’s something else entirely to craft a plan that’s realistic and workable.
Project managers are sometimes left to perform a delicate balancing act as they strive to meet the expectations of executives and high-level decision makers, deliver the results the business needs, and develop sustainable workflows and task loads for their in-house teams and external partners.
If you’re struggling to satisfy everyone with an unrealistic project, or you’re worried your efforts won’t be successful in the long run, step back and consider if you recognize any of these warning signs that indicate your project plans might not match reality.
1 – Your plan doesn’t contain all the necessary activities to drive the project to a successful completion. The omission of project tasks is one of the most common causes of problems. Sometimes activities don’t make the list because the planning process is too rushed to be truly useful. In other instances, the project’s tight deadline makes the task list look overwhelming. Items—usually mundane tasks—are trimmed, with the assumption that these duties will still be completed as a normal part of business. However, the plan quickly falls apart once execution begins because every activity that should have been included originally must now be added.
2 – Your timeline development didn’t include input from individuals who will perform the work. The lack of clear and specific insight into task duration estimates, task dependencies, and any issues that could impact how activities are executed (material shortages, vendor availability, etc.) can stop your project in its tracks. Without realistic details around when tasks can begin and when they’ll be completed, the actual timeline will begin experiencing delays very early in the project’s lifecycle.
3 – Your project was approved before the plan was complete. Something isn’t right if the organization’s leadership gave your initiative the go-ahead before having all the necessary information in front of them. Perhaps your plan is missing key deliverables that would make the project more complex to review. Or the executives may be so anxious to get going that they didn’t evaluate it thoroughly. Either scenario is reason to be concerned, as it’s likely you’ll eventually discover that your plan isn’t realistic when viewed against the senior staff’s expectations.
4 – Your timeline conflicts with other high-value efforts. Some companies have the resources to tackle multiple complex projects simultaneously, but most do not. If you’re double-booking your internal team members or hoping to sneak additional work in with a vendor that’s already been contracted, reality is going to sink in once the overload becomes apparent.
5 – You haven’t confirmed your regulatory obligations for the project. Compliance mandates are often rigid, with little wiggle room in timing or execution. If your project moves forward without detailed insight into the requirements—what you need to do, the costs involved, timing for each step—the truth of the situation could lead to the failure of your project and could even result in fines or other punitive action against your organization.
What can you do if you think you are working on an unrealistic project? Gathering additional information is a good place to start, so you can identify where the plan, budget, or timeline deviate from reality. Along with gaining better insight, an experienced project management consultant can help your internal team develop top-level plans that realistically identify the necessary tasks as well as risk areas. They will also guide you on assembling a planning team that includes the right experts to more realistically inform your timeline and project plan.