ten reasons projects fail

reason three: unrealistic expectations

All good project managers know that in order to execute a successful project you must properly negotiate and manage the Project Management Triangle or triple constraints known as scope, time, and cost. But what do you do when your customer or upper management team has unrealistic expectations and will not negotiate? What do you do if they threaten your job, your position, or to take the project away?

The worst thing you can do is agree to something you know is impossible. You are only delaying the inevitable and setting up your entire project team, company, and customer for failure. It is your job to plan for success, not failure, and that may mean taking a difficult stand. If you can carry this out with tact and a cooperative attitude, you will be more likely to survive the threats, execute a successful project and ultimately gain a great deal of respect.

An example

I spent several weeks with my customer, defining and prioritizing requirements for the consumer-based product they wanted our company to create. Afterward, I worked with my engineering team to analyze the requirements and map out a schedule. We came up with something slightly aggressive, but still realistic for my highly skilled team. The product would be ready to deliver in March.

The customer found this completely unacceptable and demanded that we deliver in time for the December gift-giving season. I told them that this was certainly possible if we drop a few of the less critical features, but they insisted that they had to have it all. They suggested I hire more people, to which I explained that adding more engineers at this point would not shorten the cycle, much like adding more women will not shorten a pregnancy. We would either have to modify the requirements or extend the delivery date. The customer threatened to give the project to a competitor.

Internally, I began taking heat from my CEO, a few of the other executives, and our sales team. It was made clear to me that I was expected to tell the customer what they wanted to hear so we would not lose the deal. I refused to misrepresent what we could do. Instead, I offered the customer full visibility into our operations so they would know the state of the project at any given time and have the assurance that our team was working as productively and efficiently as possible. The customer found this reassuring and agreed.

We worked very closely with the customer, keeping them abreast of our progress and any unexpected problems that surfaced. Initially they were impatient, still pushing for a December release, but they were impressed with our level of expertise and dedication to the project. Seeing everything up close also made them aware of the true complexity of the project. By late November, the customer had finally accepted the idea of a post-December release and was even excited about the progress that was being made.

Nearing the final release date, I was pleasantly surprised (shocked, really) on a conference call one day when a member of my customer’s team said, “I don’t know why we didn’t just listen to Tonja from the beginning. She told us all along that we would deliver in March and here we are delivering in March. We would have saved ourselves a lot of time, money, and anxiety if we had just listened to her.”

There are so many more things that could have gone wrong on this project. I could have given in to the pressure to “promise” a December date and the customer could have written a penalty fee into the contract for failure to deliver. The customer could have chosen a different company to create their product because that company was saying what the customer wanted to hear.

But I have learned time after time that it is better to be honest and stand up to the pressure of unrealistic demands. As with this customer, they may have been annoyed with me at first, but in the long run I won their respect and trust. If you have the unique combination of integrity and talent, most people are going to recognize that you are the best bet. Even if they do not, you are better off ending that relationship and finding a new customer who allows you to plan a project for success.

Here are a few tips to help you approach someone with unrealistic expectations.

Clearly explain the facts and provide alternatives

Most of the time, you can convince someone that their demands are unrealistic by simply showing and explaining the facts and options to them. If they have choices, they are more likely to feel they have control over the situation and believe that you are trying to cooperate to find a solution rather than simply being a roadblock.

For example, let’s say you have been given a set of requirements, a budget, and a deadline that you know is not a realistic combination. Instead of whining about it and telling them “it can’t be done,” offer some alternatives. Perhaps by dropping or changing a few requirements, hiring another contractor, or extending the deadline, the project can be completed successfully. Often there is one aspect of the project for which your customer or manager is not willing to compromise, but the others will become negotiable if it means hitting that target.

Promise what you can deliver and deliver what you promise

Lay everything on the table and most business people will respond rationally, working with you to find a reasonable solution. But in the absence of that rationale, protect yourself, your team, and your company by resisting promises that will likely be broken, and then do your best to deliver something better than what you did promise.

Keep communication flowing

Most importantly, keep communication flowing. This has a bonding effect that gets disparate groups of people working together toward your common project goals, a perfect recipe for success. Hiding information, being a “yes” person, and leaving people with misperceptions about the project will drive a wedge between various parties, making failure a much more likely outcome.