Are You a Victim of Unrealistic Expectations?

by Doug Couvillion, former Impact Makers’ consultant

One weekend my wife and I decided to take down three small trees in our yard.  We discussed hiring somebody to remove the trees but guessed it would cost $600 and decided to save that money for something else.  After working for 12 hours the trees were down and four truck loads of limbs had been hauled away.  To our dismay, the entire driveway was still covered in branches and we were out of time; the trees were much larger than they looked.  expectationsA few days later, we hired a company to remove the remaining limbs.  When they quoted $400 for the cleanup I was shocked.  What made this figure so hard to accept was my erroneous assumption the entire job could be done for $600.  Almost no thought went into that estimate; it was just a guess but psychologically it served as the baseline against which the cleanup cost was compared.  That’s the problem with expectations.  Once accepted they are treated as fact, even if they are unrealistic!

Unfortunately, poorly formed expectations are frequently used to set project deadlines.  These artificial deadlines are driven by several factors.  First, some managers believe they just need to set a date and hold people to it, no matter what.  Otherwise, how would they know their team is being productive?  Sometimes managers are asked to commit to dates before they have enough information to make an informed decision.  Still other dates are chosen because the manager doesn’t fully understand what he’s asking the team to do.

While aggressive deadlines can drive a team to find efficiencies, unrealistic deadlines result in missed delivery dates, poor quality, low morale, cost overruns, and a loss of respect for organizational leadership.  Here’s a brief explanation of each.

Unrealistic deadlines frequently become missed deadlines for the obvious reason they weren’t attainable in the first place.  Just because an executive wants a project done in six weeks doesn’t mean it can be done in six weeks.

When unrealistic dates are imposed quality suffers as people cut corners and side step processes to meet deadlines.  In some organizations people can be forgiven for making mistakes or producing lackluster quality but missed deadlines are career limiting events.  I once managed a software development team that was given an impossible deadline.  I asked the CEO whether he wanted to deliver on the advertised date and release buggy software or inform our customers we were delaying the release to address quality concerns.  The CEO proclaimed we deliver on schedule, no matter what.  A month later I was chastised for the number of customer complaints related to software defects.

Nobody wants to be on a losing team.  When teams are given unobtainable goals, their morale invariably suffers.  People are motivated by pride when they meet or exceed expectations.  Conversely, when asked to do something unachievable many of us feel trapped in a losing game.

Given the combined effects of missed deadlines, low quality, and poor morale, the costs associated with unrealistic deadlines can be quite high.  When a project schedule gets extended beyond the planned end date, the same people working on that project are no longer available to work other projects.  This opportunity cost is not always easily quantifiable but it always exists.  In the worst case, the new project’s start date remains unchanged making it destined for delays because it cannot begin in earnest until the late project completes.

Another hidden cost of unrealistic deadlines is the rework born of the aforementioned quality problems.  After all, how much time and money gets budgeted for remediation?  I’ve worked in lots of places where work teams live by the cliché “we don’t have time to do it right but we always find time to do it over.”

One final detriment of unrealistic deadlines is the loss in respect for organizational leaders.  Each time a project team is asked to do the impossible, it erodes their respect for leadership.  Just as nobody wants to be on a losing team, nobody wants to work for people who consistently set them up for failure.  Every leader occasionally makes mistakes or has to overcome uncontrollable events and project teams understand that.  It is the leaders who never learn from their mistakes or who refuse to listen to their teams who have difficulty earning respect and loyalty.

So, how do we avoid setting unrealistic deadlines?  There are several actions that can help.

1.       Understand the scope of work

Without fully understanding what work must be done, it is impossible to accurately estimate a project’s schedule or budget.  The sponsor, project manager, and project team must share a common understanding of the scope.

2.       Get estimates from the people who will be doing the work

When you’re estimating you won’t always know who will perform each task.  However, if you understand the scope of work you should be able to find a person with enough subject matter knowledge to accurately estimate the work involved.

3.       Develop a basis of estimate (BOE)

A good BOE identifies the estimating assumptions used to develop the schedule and budget.  Sharing those assumptions with key stakeholders will help validate them and strengthen the shared understanding of the project approach and strategy.

4.       Re-estimate as soon as you realize an estimating assumption was wrong

Some of your estimating assumptions will be incorrect.  As soon as you realize a mistake was made, assess the impact and re-estimate the project.


Unrealistic, arbitrary deadlines create all kinds of problems.  They drive up costs, lower morale, and create anxiety and frustration.  Once managers understand the true costs associated with unachievable deadlines, there are many ways to avoid them.  If you find your project teams are consistently missing deadlines, you should ask yourself whether they had any input into the schedule.  Project teams involved in scheduling their own work develop more achievable deadlines and have a stronger sense of commitment to meeting their own schedule.