What to do when you underestimate project goals

Project managers have a lot of people to keep happy. There’s senior management and there’s the client. Then, there are those folks too often overlooked in the project success equation: the team of contributors who are on the ground doing the work.

Trying to juggle all these interests, agendas, and priorities can result in a project plan that’s more an aspirational patchwork than a targeted, practical, well-defined framework. It’s said that a certain amount of ambiguity encourages diplomacy. Unfortunately, ambiguity doesn’t work in project management.

Clear deliverables, deadlines, and task assignments are the building blocks of a quality project plan. Yet so often, project managers and team members find the project plan timelines and goals slipping away from them. Failure to adhere to the project plan typically costs dollars, reputation and if bad enough – clients and future work.

Unfortunately, underestimating project goals happens too often. Everyone on the team has a responsibility to keep things on track. The basic tactics for developing and maintaining a successful project plan sound simple in theory:

  • Find the balance between aspirational and realistic goals. Aggressive deadlines and stretch metrics can be motivating. However, if they fall too far outside what’s been achieved in the past, a team can start feeling like they’ve been set up to fail. A project plan can push, but it can’t do the work.
  • Set clear expectations for all stakeholder groups. This is where excessive diplomacy leads to bad results. The team thinks there’s a certain amount of lag time or flexibility in task order, while senior management has other dependencies expecting this project to flow in a certain way.

Research on client satisfaction from CEB bears out both these points. CEB found that clients preferred slower service if a company was honest about it upfront, rather than being overpromised on timelines.

Setting clear, realistic expectations that everyone understands will always be the best way to position a project for success.

But When Things Start to Break Bad…

Of course, things often start to go off course because at least one aspect of the project plan was overestimated. While there are specific tactics to respond to different types of plan deviations, two tactics should be part of every remediation plan:

  • Communicate early and often. No one like surprises. When you start to see things turning, even if it’s not inevitable – communicate and take action proportionate to the risk. The earlier you communicate about a potential problem, the more options the team has to remediate. This is why in many Lean and Agile methodologies, such as Kanban, there are short daily stand-up meetings. These daily huddles help teams to be synchronized and catch up problems at their early stage.
  • Come with solutions, not just problems. Input from the relevant stakeholders is crucial to resolve a project plan misstep. The best way to keep people focused on finding a solution together, rather than starting to point fingers, is to come to the table with some options. They might not be the options implemented, but at least you’re setting the terms of the discussion towards the productive.

Here are some options for when specific goals have been underestimated.

Missing a Deadline

what to do when you miss a deadline

First try to identify the source that’s threatening a deadline and dissect the project plan around it. Are there some invalid dependencies that extended the project plan unnecessarily? In other words, are some tasks being delayed when they don’t need to be? Perhaps time can be regained by prioritizing tasks in a better way.

Another option is to activate your built-in lag time. Re-allocate some resources currently on a task that has some time built-in to assist meeting the at-risk deadline. These options may work if the at-risk deadline is noticed early enough in the process and there’s some flexibility built into the project plan.

If the issue has already reached crisis stage, you may need to activate a swarm. Call all hands on deck to meet the scheduled deadline, or at least minimize the delay. Swarming requires stop working on all other tasks, which you’ll have to address after this crisis has passed.

If you are familiar with the Kanban method, this is popular as “expedite” mode. It also means familiarizing new members with the requirements and specifics of the project. Consider the potential negative consequences of a swarm when deciding exactly how much extra help is needed now and what other deliverables will be impacted by it.

Another crisis option is to negotiate. Figure out what minimum viable product is achievable on the scheduled deadline and use that to negotiate the timeframe for meeting the original goal.

Say for example a marketing team was to develop a high-powered, long-form landing page and it’s just not going to happen on time. Can the team get out a shorter landing page on schedule? Now you can explain how data collected once the short landing page goes live will help optimize the longer landing page to be delivered at the later date.

Project Scope Creep

When a stakeholder tries to expand the scope of the project there are three options:

  • Clarify the original goals and get the stakeholder’s recommitment to them, so the project stays on track. Hopefully, there’s project documentation to support you. If someone really wants to add a new function or feature to the current sprint, assure the stakeholder that the scope creep request can be addressed in a new project, just not this one.
  • They’re adamant and have sway, so the scope creep feature or request needs to get done. Now you can ask if the full-project priorities should get re-assessed? The scope creep request can get done as part of the current sprint, but then something else needs to go. What are the priorities? What should be removed?
  • When the original project plus the new requests have to happen, get more resources (and budget), adjust deadlines, or manage expectations. But never compromise on quality. Use direct communication about the options and impact, so everyone has clear expectations on how the scope change will impact the project overall.

Budget Problems

identify early budget problems

Like a potentially missed deadline, the earlier you identify a potential budget overrun, the more options you’ll have to minimize it. Common places to look are whether certain tasks are over-staffed or if too much time has been given to complete a task. Labor is usually the biggest expense, so look at where your plan may have overestimated effort hours.

Another option is to look at the resource assigned to a task. Is there another team member that can do the job better and faster? Be sure to pick up the right person for the right job, no matter the position. In the end, this can save you money and time.

Stay under budget by tracking project hours and matching them with your resource availability in your accounting, HR, or Enterprise Resource Planning software. These tools help translate team hours into dollars, which can save you a lot of grief later.

The Most Valuable Tactic: Learn from This Situation

Every project plan, whether spot-on or filled with catastrophes, is an opportunity to learn. It’s so easy to move on to the next project without taking a backward glance. There’s so much to get done! However, moving on without identifying the reasons for wins or failures ensures the same failures will get built into future projects. This is what the Lean philosophy applies as the culture of continuous improvement.

Do your project post-mortems. Come away with at least a few specific conclusions you can use to reduce the likelihood of underestimating goals on your next project.


This post was contributed by Elisa Silverman. She is a TechnologyAdvice contributor who follows these simple principles when writing: Never waste the reader’s time. Always be relevant — or at least be interesting. She’s been freelance writing for eight years, after spending years working in the technology and legal fields. 

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