“We need this ASAP.”

There is no doubt in my mind you’ve heard this at least once, twice, or six hundred times. Your client, boss or other stakeholder says this has got to be done now, immediately. And in most cases, the team members just shrug their shoulders and roll with it.

But rolling with it is not only counterproductive, it’s dangerous.

You’re not doing anyone a favor by agreeing to something you know can’t be done — and you are most definitely painting a target on your back if you do so. Not only will the blame fall to you, but your reward for accepting the assignment will be yet another project with another unrealistic deadline.

And another.

And another.


A cautionary tale: mission impossible

Many years back, a colleague relayed the following story to me:

“I was partnering with an IT firm, working with a large financial services client. The IT firm was handling all aspects of design & build; I was on board as a consultant. The entire 6-month project was a case study in unrealistic deadlines! During that time we had dozens of conversations that went like this:

CEO: How long will it take to make this feature list reality?

PM: This is a long, complex list. We need 14 months, at bare minimum. To be honest, we don’t even know if your current IT environment will support half of this. And we don’t have the experience or expertise necessary for this functionality.

CEO: WHAT!?! No. No way we can wait that long. This has to be live in six months. The staff will have to step up their game.

PM: OK. 

The Project Manager immediately bowed to political pressure, despite the fact that (a) the delivery date was a logistical impossibility and (b) absolutely nothing in that exchange of words made the CEO’s six-month mandate any more doable. When that deadline wasn’t met, the project ended in disaster. My partner firm was fired, and the resulting bad blood was hard on everyone.”

Some of you are shocked, and some of you are laughing knowingly. This happens more often than any of us would care to admit.

In the last three decades I’ve seen this play out more times than I can count. Ridiculous project deadlines are part and parcel of any kind of product design or development process. Here’s the thing, though: people always seem to know when they want something, but very rarely do they really know why that date is important.

All they know is that they are pressured to deliver yesterday — and they’re scrambling to either get it done or pass that pressure off to someone else.

Four questions that combat unrealistic deadlines

So when you’re in this situation, in my colleague’s shoes or the Project Manager’s shoes, be smart and work to negotiate a more realistic outcome. There are four questions you can (and should) ask that almost always stop this runaway train in its tracks:

  1. What happens if we don’t deliver until (insert realistic date)? You’re trying to find out whether the proposed schedule is actually driven by an event or consequence, instead of personal fear or desire.
  2. Which features and functions have to be in place by then? More often than not, everyone will come to the realization that only certain things have to be accomplished in the initial time frame. And that having those features will  relieve the pressure driving the date.
  3. Can we hire help, or get the IT (or Marketing or…) folks to help out? You’re making the case that something has to give: time, money and/ or resources.
  4. Does it have to run on all platforms/browsers? Consistency across platforms can be sacrificed (within reason) in a compressed time frame.

Can I guarantee that this works every time?


Sometimes you’ll be dealing with unreasonable people; that’s life. But I do know that this approach tends to turn unrealistic deadlines into reasonable goals that everyone feels can be met, more often than not.

In many cases, the real problem is that everyone’s afraid to speak up. But I will guarantee you that not asking these questions almost guarantees you’ll be stuck in the no-win hell of ASAP.

In closing, I’d like to share something I heard a consultant say almost a decade ago, and which I repeat to anyone who will listen (and some who won’t). It’s always stuck with me, because it’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received:

Silence equals agreement.

If you say nothing about something you think is not possible, or that you believe is dangerous, you are not only agreeing that it’s the right thing to do — you are also agreeing to DO it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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