5 Things A Project Manager Should Do If The Scope Is Unrealistic

If you're in project management, one of the issues you'll inevitably deal with is an unrealistic project scope. Project stakeholders (usually a senior member of management wants to achieve revenue targets of $X million within a very short timeframe).

My opinion has always been this - if project scope is unrealistic at the outset, you should do everything in your power to make it realistic. Doing otherwise, i.e. accepting the scope as it is to court project disaster.

I've seen teams kill themselves because their project manager simply doesn't want to "offend management" and just bear with unrealistic scopes.

Do not allow this. As a project manager, your responsibility is to ensure the project is delivered, but NOT to the extent of killing yourself or your team members.

In this article, I want to highlight 5 things a project manager should do if he or she discovers that the scope is unrealistic. It's important to know what to do, because I've seen many PMs ignore this checkpoint and suffer the consequences during the project.

what should a project manager do if the scope is unrealistic 1 An unrealistic project scope needs to be addressed

1. Review The Project Plan

You know what's the first thing I do during initial project briefs where I feel that the scope is unrealistic?

I shut up and go check my project plan.

The last thing you should do as a PM is raise a ruckus about project scope to your project sponsor WITHOUT first checking the facts.

So I spend a day reviewing my project plan and check the following:

  • Look for errors
  • Look to extract bandwidth

Look for errors. This is SO crucial. I've seen many project plans with errors in timeline or resourcing. And this leads to the thought that scope is unrealistic when it actually isn't. Check and double-check your project plan before you conclude you can't meet the timeline.

Look to extract bandwidth. What do I mean here? Extracting bandwidth means to check for other parts of the project where you may have resources able to help out with the critical path.

For example, say critical path for your project delivery is 90 days and you think this is too agressive. Are there ways you can pump in extra resources into that 90 days to help meet the timeline?

Perhaps extra resources are sitting around waiting for hardware to be set up, or equipment to be delivered. Perhaps the resources are not fully loaded, e.g. wrapping up development or doing simple unit testing.

Check to see if they have bandwidth to help.

2. Review Project Dependencies

Another important thing to check, if you feel scope is unrealistic, are the project dependencies. If your project is dependent on another Project ABC going live, and that project cannot be done by a certain date - that will impact your ability to go live too.

Or perhaps there's a regulatory requirement that needs to be worked out by a Compliance unit in your company. And until they work it out, you cannot deliver the project by a certain date.

Look at these dependencies and see if you can build a case to push back your delivery dates.

3. Discuss It With An Influential Stakeholder

One of the critical things a PM must do is to establish good working relationships with his project sponsor and stakeholders.

One trick I like to use is to check with project stakeholders if THEY think the project scope is realistic.

Many project managers I know think that project stakeholders are not on their side.

They think stakeholders simply want project benefits in a short time, and are also asking for more, and throwing in change request after change request.

This is NOT the attitude you should have.

Instead, work with your stakeholders. Try to understand what the project means to him or her. How will it help their department? How will it help them do their job better? And help them understand that if the timeline is too short, you can't deliver a good product or outcome.

And if need be, meet the project sponsor together with your stakeholder. Your stakeholder may be able to give viewpoints to support a more realistic timeline.

4. Escalate To Management

If all else fails, you need to escalate to management that the project scope is unrealistic.

There are a few things to note here:

  • Be prepared with options
  • Highlight the impact
  • Stay objective

Be prepared with options. When you go tell management that project scope is unrealistic, you DON'T just go in and say that.

Have options for them. For example, if you say that the project cannot be delivered by a certain date, could you deliver it by another later date? Or perhaps you can cut out certain part of the deliverable to ensure you can meet the original date?

Highlight the impact. You should always highlight the impact if the project goes ahead with an unrealistic scope. Highlight that the team will overwork. Highlight that the product may be inferior and full of defects. Highlight that you will try your best to deliver but under the present scope it will be very challenging.

Stay objective. Don't be negative in your words, just be objective. You don't want to "burn bridges" with senior management. Make sure your tone is level, your viewpoint is objectvive and state the facts. Be mechanical about it. Don't throw in emotion.

Case Study: Case Study. I once saw a senior project manager scream and shout at a project sponsor during a Steering Committee Meeting.

The CEO and other C-level executives were there - and this guy was just throwing expletives around, about how the project is just impossible and that the sponsor didn't think through the timeline properly.

Can you imagine how many bridges he burnt that day? Don't ever do something like this. It's totally unprofessional and will lead your career to ruin.

5. Shield The Team

One of the problems I see in some PMs is that they don't shield their teams from scope issues.

Some PMs I know, after getting an unrealistic scope from senior management, go back to their teams to "whine".

They'll say "Oh, they've given us a totally crazy schedule. Sure, we'll do it but I'm not going to break my back for them! Let's just do the minimum necessary and if the product is inferior, too bad!"

Again, not a good attitude to adopt.

Remember, scope issues are the project manager's issues. Don't complain to your team about it. You only end up demoralizing everyone.

Instead, say something like: "Management has given us a very tight schedule. We'll need to do our best and work hard to achieve it. But if at any point you feel things are getting impossible to complete, let me know upfront. I'll bring to management and highlight that the scope is not achievable."

That's a MUCH better response to the team.

Wrapping Up ...

I hope the above has helped you understand what a project manager should do if the scope is unrealistic. Granted, many project sponsors may have ambitious plans and want project outcomes realized within a short period of time. However, if it gets to a point where it is unrealistic, it becomes a danger and source of stress for the project manager and project team.

As a project manager, when you encounter an unrealistic scope, try to check the facts first - in terms of the plan and dependencies. And if you need to escalate to senior management, do it objectively and have options ready. Also, do not take it out on your team - shield them from scope issues.

Look at how the increase in scope can be mitigated using, e.g. by negotiating with stakeholders, offloading extra bandwidth from other parts of the project, etc. As a last resort, you should consider escalation to the next level of management.

Just remember, there's always, always a way out and for scope matters to get resolved.

Until next time, here's wishing you all the best in your project!

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