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When is it Okay to Miss an IT Project Deadline?

Projects come and go, but deadlines are always firm. Sometimes.

Meeting deadlines is an important aspect of project management. But what happens when a project remains uncompleted when deadline day arrives? Will the world end? Worse yet, will you lose your job?

Shai Shandil, founder and CEO of Softsolutions, an Agile training and software development firm, says not to worry. He notes that under certain circumstances it's perfectly acceptable to miss a project deadline. “IT projects are notorious for having aggressive timelines,” Shandil explains. “Coupled with the complexity of modern IT projects, it means slippages are a common occurrence.”

Guillermo Perez, CEO of custom software development company Octobot, believes that it's important to prioritize the product-market fit rather than attempt to meet a deadline. “[Do] not sacrifice the product’s quality to achieve the deadline,” he warns.

Another justifiable reason for missing a deadline is when a project's requirements are vastly changed during development, resulting in a complete product redesign. “That may mean scrapping huge chunks of code altogether,” says John Li, CTO of lending company Fig Loans. “Sometimes, the new work will take much longer than initially anticipated, but getting the job done right is far more critical than getting the wrong job done on time,” he says.

Shandil concurs. “For me, the issue is not about the deadline itself, [but] what's at stake,” he says. “While we in IT are traditionally not great communicators, we must not let that stop us from deeply understanding the context and talking to stakeholders about which deadlines can slip and by how much.”

Breaking the Bad News

Whenever a deadline is about to be missed, the reason for the delay must be fully explained to key stakeholders, Li says. “Explain what the outcome of the changes will be, how they will directly impact revenue, and a clear view of the new timeline.”

Project management is the art of managing trade-offs. “The primary and most visible trade-offs are scope, schedule, and cost, with quality and risk close behind,” says Alan Zucker, founding principal of IT and business management advisory firm Project Management Essentials. “Delivering a project on time, but with unacceptable quality or risks, is not being successful.”

Honesty really is the best policy, Shandil declares. “We hide behind acronyms and buzzwords to gloss over what's really the true issue that's causing [the] deadline slippage,” he says. “This means doing the work when it comes to ... consulting with stakeholders, keeping them abreast of wins and losses, big or small, so that when things get untenable there's no surprise.”

Communicating project risks should be an ongoing and regular process. “When concerns are raised early, there's time to discuss options and contingency plans,” Zucker notes. “Bad news is not like a fine wine: it doesn't get better with age.”

Whenever missing a project deadline appears inevitable, the project manager should immediately inform management and key stakeholders. “The problem should be clearly articulated, and options should be presented,” Zucker says. “Even unpopular options, such as abandoning the project, should be considered.”

Sadly, there are many examples of products that were rushed to market containing known risks and flaws that resulted in needless injuries or deaths. “Often, executives and project managers were focused on the time rather than the quality constraint,” Zucker notes.

Moving Forward

When evaluating a delayed project and calculating a new deadline it's critical to step back and review the project's goals, Zucker says. “The objective should describe the 'what' and 'why' of the project.”

If a delayed project requires a radical overhaul, it’s advisable to restart development before determining the new timeline. “Build a list of the necessary tasks, a time estimate for each, and from there you can find the projected total time required to complete the work,” Li advises. “Project timeline software can help you keep your estimates organized for a more accurate projection on time.”

Shandil observes that there are three dimensions to project success: time, scope, and resources. Too often, IT is presented with a deadline, a scope, and a resource with minimal, or zero, consultation with IT leaders as to whether the desired goals are plausible, he notes. Shandil believes that this practice is a response to the distrust that exists between IT and many business colleagues created by past commitment failures. “Today’s business leaders continue to see IT as a money pit,” he states.

Perez recommends making full use of Agile development methodologies. “The current world context creates fast changes in every project environment, and it's important to leverage Agile methodologies to rapidly adapt to these changes.” Perez recommends using one- to two-week-long sprints to reduce the gap between current development and any necessary changes, “Have more frequent communication with stakeholders [to] reduce the risk of the project execution,” he adds.

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