How To Manage Fixed Date Projects

Fixed date projects occur often these days. The project sponsor picks a date and hands you the project. So, what's a project manager to do? How can we manage fixed date projects?

First of all, don’t freak out. Some things are unrealistic, but others are not. Be positive and ask for some time to do some analysis. Let your sponsor know that you will come back in a week or two with the results.

Second, seek to understand why. Why is the deadline so critical? Be careful in how you ask this. You’re not challenging the sponsor. Rather, you simply want to see things from the perspective of the sponsor. Listen carefully.

Third, start defining the scope. What are the deliverables and the priorities of each deliverable? Can some of the deliverables be implemented later? 

Fourth, engage your stakeholders early. Ask them to help you with the analysis. Seek their expertise.

What to Share with Your Project Sponsor

So, what do you share with your sponsor when your analysis is complete? Think of the situation like a puzzle. Consequently, you may offer different options.

  • Respond with a date range such as, "The desired deadline was March 31st. Our analysis shows that the project can be completed between May 1st and June 30th."
  • See if additional resources can be added. "If we can add these two resources at a cost of $50,000, we can complete the project between April 15th and May 15th."
  • Can the scope can be modified? "Furthermore, if we can remove or postpone the lower priority deliverables, we can complete the project between March 31st and April 15th.

So, what do you say to a project sponsor when you've completed the analysis and you know that the deadline is unrealistic? Tell them the truth. Explain the process you went through, who was involved, the constraints, and the results.

10 Things to Do in Fixed Date Projects

When challenged with a fixed date project, think of it as an opportunity. Often times, you can deliver the project on time with the right approach. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Be positive. Establish a positive working relationship with your sponsor and stakeholders.
  2. Negotiate for the best resources. People, more than anything, will win the day.
  3. Select your project lifecycle. Will you use a traditional waterfall approach or an agile method? The answer to this question has significant implications in aiding or hindering your goals.
  4. Define the project charter. Include a problem statement, goals, deliverables, assumptions, constraints, exclusions, high-level risks, stakeholders, and team members.
  5. Define and prioritize requirements. In agile projects, work with your product owner to define and prioritize your user stories in the requirements backlog.
  6. Define the scope. Clarify what will be included in the product scope and determine your project scope—the work to be done to create and deliver the products, service, and results.
  7. Create the work breakdown structure (WBS). One of the best ways to engage your team members and define the scope is through the facilitation of a WBS exercise
  8. Develop your schedule. If your critical path extends beyond the fixed date, work with your sponsor and team to reduce the scope or postpone features for future stages or iterations (part of managing the triple threat constraint).
  9. Complete the initial risk identification and assessment. 
  10. Build a contingency reserve. This reserve is not an artificial buffer. The contingency reserve is based on known residual risks.

Keep in mind - good risk management often shortens the project. Risks are eliminated or decreased. However, there are always residual risks that should be recognized in your contingency reserve. For example, you may specify that the project requires an additional six weeks to accommodate risks on the project.

Two Ways to Deliver Faster

  • Add resources to critical path tasks. Be careful. Adding resources or stretching existing resources may cause more harm than help. Crashing also results in increased costs.
  • Fast track tasks. Look for ways to execute critical path tasks in parallel. Be careful—​fast-tracking tasks can result in rework and greater risks.

Your approach to a fixed date project will determine your success. The project manager must have the right attitude, ensure appropriate commitments by the sponsor and the team, and select the right processes, tools, and techniques.