dealing with unreasonable deadlines

A reader writes:

I work in a very small office, doing a series of specific technical projects, reporting to a very young, recent-graduate manager who doesn’t have any experience in my area. I am regularly asked to complete projects in in ridiculous time frames. For instance, a project that I (and other peers) would normally budget around 30 days for, I am asked to complete in 4-12 days. My manager is clearly receiving directives from his superiors, who also have no experience in my area, but clearly believe that they need to push their employees. I am constantly going back to my manager to explain that more time is needed for these projects, but it makes no difference. Usually I get a barrage of micro-managing questions: why does it take this much time? Why can’t you do it in the time frame? Why does that take so much time? Shouldn’t it take you x time to do y? Can’t you do y instead of z? For our most recent project — an IP project (I’m not an IT person) I was asked to complete in a week — I replied to him that I was doubtful I would meet the deadline, and if I did I would need extensive help and resources from him. His reply was to simply reiterate my deadline.

It’s a small company. Our department is my manager and I, that’s it. The company typically does very little planning or provide much by way of resources. I’m looking for another job (surprise, surprise) but in the meantime I’d love some tips on how to handle my manager so I don’t have to dread going to work.

This is tough, because without hearing your manager’s perspective, it’s hard to know whether this is a company with ludicrous deadlines and expectations or whether it’s a company that strives to be exceptional and thus gets things done faster than industry averages. I’ve had a couple of people work for me who were used to much more slowly paced environments and when they first came to us, they thought we operated at a crazy warp speed — which maybe we do, compared to most places, but it’s because we kick ass.

That’s in no way to discount the possibility that your company is simply insane. They very well may be — but be sure to consider both options.

Along similar lines, it’s possible that when your manager is asking questions that feel like micromanagement to you, he might be genuinely trying to learn about what is and isn’t reasonable and why. After all, he needs to be armed with information if he’s going to go to his boss and ask for more time. I know that I sometimes inadvertently give a department a deadline that just isn’t realistic, and I rely on them to tell me when they think that’s the case. When that happens, I do sometimes pepper them with questions to understand why — because once I hear the reasoning, I may be able to make changes that will save them time. For instance, if I find out that 85% of the project can be accomplished quickly but the other 15% will take much longer, maybe I can be satisfied with putting that other 15% off for a while, or even not doing it at all. And when I understand why something will take a while, I can also sometimes come up with means of relief (giving you additional resources for the project, moving other deadlines back, contracting part of it out, etc.).

Obviously, I don’t know your manager and I don’t know if that’s what he’s doing. But I want to throw the possibility out there.

In any case, as for specific strategies for handling this, I have two suggestions:

1. Tell your manager what you can do. Try saying something like, “With only 10 days, I can do x and y, and I’ll need to modify z in the following ways. And we won’t have finished fully testing it, but that could be wrapped up two days later. Would that work?”

2. It sounds like you’ve raised the issue on a project-specific basis, but have you talked with your manager from more of a big-picture perspective? For instance, you could say something like, “I’ve noticed that we sometimes have different ideas about what are realistic timeframes for many projects. I want to be able to do the job well and deliver a good product, but sometimes we’re given deadlines that aren’t possible to meet, not if the product is going to be any good. I believe in pushing myself and I think you know I work hard, but I’m concerned that we’re on a different page from Department X about how long these projects take. Can we talk about how we might be able to address this?” (Note that this language puts you and your manager on the same side, rather than attributing the problem to your manager himself.)

If the manager pre-dates you at the company, you might also ask if your predecessors were able to meet similar deadlines and, if so, what they might have done differently than you. Maybe there are shortcuts that you don’t realize they’d be okay with you taking. You might be aiming for more perfection than they are; maybe they’re willing to trade perfection for speed.

Ultimately having that big-picture conversation with your manager will help you get the issue on the table and hear his perspective on it. You’ll get a better sense of where he’s coming from and whether you’re going to be able to resolve the issue in a way you can be happy with. And that at least will arm you to figure out your next moves. Good luck!

{ 1 comment… read it below }

  1. Evil HR Lady*

    I’ve generally found that pushing back politely and how you’ve descried works.

    I’ve worked for people that wouldn’t push back on their management no matter what. End result is absolute craziness and high stress for the department.

    Funny thing is, when I’ve explained the situation to their bosses the people are usually quite rational. “Oh, I didn’t realize it would require x, y, and z to get that done. No problem. Just get it to me as soon as possible.”

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