dealing with unreasonable deadlines

This post was originally published on September 7, 2007.

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!

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Charles

    All good advice; another possiblity to consider is “how done is done.”

    It is hard to tell from the generalized projects mentioned; but, sometimes, maybe what the boss is looking for is something that isn’t as detailed as the OP thinks it should be. Perhaps, the boss is looking for a “rough draft” rather than a finely-tuned finished project.

    Of course, this difference will be settled by talking to the boss and explaining things more clearly.

  2. Esra

    I’m a big believer in ‘fast/good/cheap, pick two’. Most people tend to want good, it’s picking between the other two that causes strife.

    1. Tamara

      So true! This sums it up very well. And if everyone on the project isn’t on the same page about which 2, you’re in a world of trouble!

    2. Anonymous

      I had a boss who would constantly tell me he needed a report in an hour; a report that would take me a minimum of 2 hours to complete. I kept turning it in late so it would be correct. I also talked to him about the timing issue and explained my side of it. Once I turned it in on time, but it was full of errors. When he called me on the carpet about it, I looked at him and said, “You can have it right but slow, or quick but wrong. Tell me which one you want.” He finally got the message and started giving me more time. Of course, it just ended up being one more black mark against me in his eyes, but at least I didn’t have to deal with the timing issue anymore.

  3. EM

    As a consultant, I’m faced with this all the time. More often than not, the amount of money in the contract dictates the level of effort that can go into a project. If one came from an academia or government background, it can be hard to get used to doing things on a strict time budget.

  4. Anonymous

    While I tend to want to respond to the OP taking the comments at face value, I’ve seen firsthand a situation where a group of employees had been sheltered in a relatively sedate working environment. Over time, they had developed a work process that they considered “fast”, but was in reality horrendously slow. Outside departments were constantly frustrated dealing with them, but each and every one of the long-time employees was convinced that there was absolutely no way to speed up their processes without compromising the end result. As new people entered the organization from other environments however, it became more and more obvious that the slow pace could definitely be accelerated. Many of the slowpokes who refused to try to work faster were laid off, and I’m quite sure that to this day, they still don’t recognize or understand all the ways that they could have expedited their work.

    If the OP ever comes back and looks at this, my biggest recommendation is to take the comments at face value. Because you have one of two truths–either (A) you are working as fast as you can and the manager is mistaken, or (B) you are overlooking ways you can do your work faster. If you are wrong and your work can be done faster, demonstrating an eagerness to try and improve is the best way to come out of it still looking good. And if you are right and there is no way to speed it up, your manager is more likely to understand that fact if you’ve been working closely to see if there’s a solution.

    1. fposte

      Yes, we’re not always right about going as fast as we can or the project’s being improved by our taking more time. I try to look at my own workflow with this in mind occasionally. What’s my ROI on taking that extra day? Is it an extra day’s improved? Is there something else that extra day would have been more profitably spent on? Often the return decreases precipitously as you go.

  5. Anonymous

    Your manager may be fully aware of what he is asking. He may even know it is impossible. I worked in an office once where a new, young, straight out of college manager was transferred in and started demanding impossible things. It created a very hostile work environment, totally transferred a place where we used to love to work.
    One morning in an office meeting he told us when dealing with clients that he had learned in college “demand the impossible. Your employees will never reach it, but they will be more productive from trying”. Yeah, he was a moron, but the point is this is a mantra that is being taught in some business schools.
    Just hold your head high, do your best, and don’t sweat the rest.

  6. Anonymous

    I work in a law office that consists of myself and two attorneys. Neither of them have any sense of how long things take (and don’t care to learn despite my efforts to inform them) and love to procrastinate. Example: This morning I had to come in early for a deposition. My boss showed up about 15 minutes beforehand (despite telling me to be in much earlier). She gave me a stack of about 100 sets of documents, each set consisting of about 2-3 stapled pages that needed to be copied in triplicate ten minutes before the start of the deposition. Normally, I’d estimate that this is a task that would take about an hour as removing and re-stapling documents takes a lot longer than simply plopping them all on the copier. Unfortunately for me, if I don’t meet impossible deadlines like this (or if something beyond my control happens that causes a delay), my bosses will begin badmouthing me in front of their clients or other attorneys. When I confront them about this behavior, I’m usually dismissed without any sort of response from them and they’ll simply ignore me if I try to push the issue. If I try to explain that what they are asking is simply not possible, it is not uncommon for them to literally throw their hands in the air and shout “just get it done” multiple times while they walk away. As such, I’m forced to try and do the impossible and when I do actually succeed, I don’t get any credit. After such tasks, I often hear them bragging to their clients or other attorneys with stories of how they managed to do the impossible task with absolutely no credit being given to me.

    We moved offices a few years ago (telling me was an afterthought yet it meant that I went from being solely a paralegal to running all aspects of the office). They required that I learn how to program and install phone systems (because they didn’t want to spend money on a professional). They required that I learn how to install ethernet/ phone lines and setup our computer and printer network. (And both of these tasks had be learned an executed over a weekend.) They required that I act as the accountant and handle all matters relating to payroll, all taxes, A/R & A/P, bookkeeping, etc. I’ve also become the receptionist. All of this was in addition to my primary duties relating to being a paralegal.

    Honestly, I think some bosses simply don’t care if they are making their employees miserable with such behavior and don’t care to rectify it in any way. If they get what they want in the end, they’re happy.

      1. Anonymous

        Yes I am, but my experience here has led me to the conclusion that I’d rather not simply take any other job and possibly be unhappy there. Instead, I prefer to do a little checking on prospective employers to better understand employee satisfaction. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, but I’d rather not waste my time and the time of a prospective employer if I’m just going to be unhappy and wind up wanting to sever my relationship with the new employer. So far, I’ve found it difficult to convince prospective employers to look beyond my degree and convey that self-taught knowledge and multiple years experience in multiple areas translates to an ability to problem solve and learn independently to fill in any knowledge gaps that might exist. I’ve found that trying to bring up such skills tends to elicit a small, polite smile and a push towards the door.

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