How to Set Realistic IT Project Deadlines

Hope and optimism won't help you establish a realistic project deadline. Thoughtful insight and careful planning are the keys to setting a practical schedule.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

November 8, 2022

4 Min Read
Close-up Of Alarm Clock In Front Of Businesspeople Working In Office
Andriy Popov via Alamy Stock

Once an IT project has been proposed, constructed, and approved, there's always the next question: “How long will it take?”

Building an extremely buttoned-up project plan at the outset is the key to deadline success, says Juliet Siro, director of national professional services for Toshiba America Business Solutions. “This way, you know what the deadlines are and can plan around them, making them realistic.”

When considering a project timeline, it's important to understand exactly why the project is necessary, both for the organization as a whole and for individual stakeholders. “You'll need to understand this and communicate it to various team members and suppliers to ensure they understand the project's importance,” advises Rodney Heath, consulting director at Agile software services firm Nexient.

Initial Steps

Begin the estimation process by breaking the effort into smaller, more manageable pieces. “These will be easier to estimate than a larger multi-stage effort and will shed light on the type of expertise you'll need to provide input to key activities, sequencing, and durations that will lead to more realistic project deadlines,” Heath explains.

It's also a good idea to solicit advice from colleagues, preferably those with prior project scheduling experience, who can provide rational duration/sequencing insights, allowing realistic milestones to be generated. Also identify any internal and external dependencies that could derail or delay your project, Heath suggests.

Be prepared for change, Heath warns. “If there's one constant in life, it's change,” he notes. “Change will happen despite your best planning efforts, and … you may want to set aside a portion of the budget as a management reserve to help with any contingencies that may arise.”

Prioritize Deadlines

Fully understanding the scope and complexity of each project task is essential. “Finish the hard stuff first,” Siro advises. “You’ll feel much better when doing so, since you'll have plenty of time to complete the project.”

Prioritizing deadlines is an important part of effective project management. In some cases, it may be necessary to adjust a project's timeline in order to meet a more pressing deadline. “This can be done by reallocating resources or adjusting the scope of the project,” says Jim Durham, CIO of solar panels installation firm Solar Panels Network USA. “It's also important to communicate with other teams who may be affected by the change in order to avoid disruptions.”

Deadlines within a project can be effectively prioritized by understanding business needs and stakeholder expectations and analyzing how internal and/or external dependencies will affect the project's execution, Heath says. “Deadlines should be prioritized in accordance with stakeholder expectations and business needs, the flow of the project work, its complexity, and any identified dependencies,” he notes. “There may [also] be deadlines based on hard-logic dependencies that cannot be avoided and will have to be managed accordingly.”

Whenever possible, try building some flexibility into the timeline. “This can be done by adding buffer time into the schedule, or by using milestones instead of hard deadlines,” Durham advises. This technique can help the project leader avoid situations where the team is working under too much pressure. “It's also important to remember that deadlines are not set in stone, and they may need to be adjusted as the project progresses,” he says.


A project leader’s primary focus should be on practical communication, both within the team and with external stakeholders. “If the appropriate communication mechanisms are in place, it will support the early identification of deadlines that may be at risk of being missed,” Heath says. If a missed deadline appears more or less inevitable, the project leader should immediately communicate the possibility to the appropriate leaders and other stakeholders. He also notes that it’s important to relay the missed deadline's likely impact, actions the team is taking to mitigate the damage, and all other relevant information.

Understand that virtually all projects hit road bumps. “The unforeseen will inevitably happen, and the more prepared you are the easier it will be to hit your deadlines,” Siro says. “Whenever I create a written plan referencing requirements, deliverables, and expectations, I find myself in far fewer deadline-related stress situations.”


IT leaders deal with deadlines every day and at different levels. “The best way to handle them is to be realistic about what you can manage and what you can’t,” Siro says. “Such an approach helps control expectations while benefiting both work as well as personal relationships.”

Remember, too, that project work is typically riddled with uncertainties. Therefore, setting deadlines needs to be done effectively, utilizing as much accurate information as is currently available. “You need to be flexible and agile; adjust effectively to the unknown that will inevitably arise during any given project,” Heath suggests.

What to Read Next:

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When to Pull the Plug on a Failing IT Project

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About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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