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How to push back against unrealistic expectations around deadlines in a project?

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Anonymous User at Taro Communitya year ago

I'm a tech lead on a long-running project that has gathered momentum over the last couple of months after being in a slow death phase for a many months. Recently, a couple of senior engineers joined the team and we've gotten rid of a lot of things that were slowing down the project. We've managed to hit many awesome milestones on time as a consequence.

The project is nearing it's endgame phase but we've unfortunately hit a snag in this last leg due to which it seems that we'll be missing the last couple of deadlines by a decent margin. Due to the expectations that we've set by consistently delivering on time for all the previous milestones, our manager has suggested "pushing" to meet the last couple of deadlines.

I don't want to ask my team to work overtime or on the weekend to meet these deadlines (especially since we've been doing a great job of turning the project around and delivering on time). How can I push back against it in a manner that does not impact my currently ongoing or future performance reviews?

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  • 5
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    Senior Software Engineer and Career Coach
    a year ago

    You've asked a really solid question and it's a difficult situation.

    From a high-level, when facing problems such as this, there are 3 levers you can pull.

    1. Scope - how much do you expect to accomplish. What can you cut to meet the deadline you want
    2. People - Can people be added to speed up the project
    3. Time - The other 2 lead into this one, and if you can't get more time, you need less scope or more people.

    Given that, you could essentially have a discussion with your manager about any of those three things. Maybe he can get you more people to help, or you could find ways to cut scope or add technical debt in the short term.

    One thing I would suggest is to think about it from your manager's perspective--why does he feel the need to imply that people work overtime to get this done? Is it because this project landing is essential to the survival of the company? Is it because he will be impacted negatively in some way by the project not getting shipped on time? In what way will he be impacted? If you can find that out, you might be able to come up with the best way to communicate your concerns to your manager, and potentially solve the problem he has with it going on a bit longer.

    Some actionable approaches to the conversation with your manager:

    • As always, make sure to stay level-headed and come off as respectful, but be willing to stand your ground
    • Approach to asking: "I understand there were some unexpected roadblocks that came up which are giving us some issues with meeting the deadline; I plan on scheduling a team retro so we can discuss how to plan better in the future. For the current state of the project though, I'd love to explore what options we could come up with to get as close to the deadline as possible. Would you be open to that?" Manager says yes, then you present a couple options.
    • If in the end, it ends up leading to no possible options (not able to reduce scope, add people, maybe reduce time spent in meetings, etc.)-- again, try to find what the urgency is around the deadline and discuss solutions around that.
    • If THAT ends up leading to nothing, this is the point where you have to decide if you want to stand your ground. If you do, do so respectfully--"I'm not comfortable with asking my team to work overtime. And I have responsibilities I need to take care of after work. I understand that this isn't a great situation; I can promise you though that I will be working as hard as possible during working hours and am going to keep you updated with the progress of the project".

    My advice here is a bit more specific to your situation, and I'm sure there are other approaches, so it might be worth waiting to see if others chime in.

    There is a video on this I recently watched here too, which may not apply 100% directly but you can get some general principles from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBNHvx8Vc6M

    Please let me know how this goes! I'm very curious and I'd like to know if this ended up being helpful. Reach out to me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordancutler1/

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    Senior Software Engineer at IBM
    a year ago

    The prior response does incredibly well to highlight that negotiation process and you can get a sense of how hard a piece of functionality is needed vs how soft it is. Some dates you cannot miss or the company goes kapoot. Some things scope can kinda slip out a bit because if it's going to be shipped in a reasonable amount of time done well, then do it and do it right. The one thing I'd caution is the continuous I'm going to do it right and then slipping into the future. At that point, I'd almost expect a PIP coming unless you have a really good reason.

    When you do slip, be respectful to still get it done in reasonable amounts of time. Everyone has to go through grind periods in our life fairly regularly, but what makes it easier is a grind you can enjoy and manage rather than feel anxiety from and just want to find another job immediately. I suppose I'd also look to your and each individual's needs and see. I'm working a bit less right now because I just got off a job where I was recovering from incredibly hardcore mental health struggles and I need the breather room, but I get my work done quick so I still have 25-30 hours a week to fill with much more impactful work while my coworkers done 70 hrs a week (our work is equally challenging, but I'm well beyond super educated in my specialty and they're being put into new areas of learning hence the difference).

    Lastly, I just like to attack my day and keep myself educated. This makes everything so much easier as work is just caught up and I can keep my schedules on track meaning my manager's happy. Try it out and just get a sense of your manager. They are great people too and it's really only ever been more fundamental differences in personality that put us at odds.