A friend of mine told me about a recent conversation he had with the boss. Due to circumstances beyond his control, the timetable for major a project originally slated to be completed by this time next year has been truncated to a due date some time in November. It seems someone on the executive team made a mistake and to rectify it, the project needs to be completed immediately.
Despite the fact that it will likely be impossible to accomplish in the new time box (I know, it's really hard to believe that anyone would rationally expect a 12-months long project could be completed in about 12 weeks), in a conversation he had with his boss a few days ago, the conversation went something like this:
"How are we doing on the new schedule?" said the boss.
"The team is doing the best they can, but I'm doubtful that we can get 12 months worth of work done in as many weeks," he said.
"You know if we don't get this project done, there will be lay-offs," said the boss in an accusatory tone.
"We'll do the best we can," said my friend.
"That's not the answer I want," said the boss. "Tell me you're going to get this project done."
In fairness, to help, the company has allocated additional resources and brought in new team members to achieve the objectives by the new deadline, but shaving nearly 11 months of a 12 month timeline just doesn't sound reasonable to me. Unfortunately, when my friend tries to explain the situation to his key stakeholder, it falls on deaf ears.
"If you don't get this done," he says, "there will be layoffs."
Meanwhile, the stress is starting to take its toll on the team.
Over the course of the last month, they made great progress. The extra team members working extra hours have accomplished more than would normally be expected, but it isn't enough. What's more, I can't imagine that management really believes this is even possible.
At some level, I admit that this is the life most project leaders live every day. "Tell me you're going to get this done," isn't that uncommon. What's more, often teams pull it all together and do amazing things. That's likely the case with my friend and his team. Nevertheless, doing more with less has really become doing more and more with less and less to the point that nobody has the ability to set realistic expectations anymore.
Is it possible that project teams are universally suffering from pulling a rabbit out of their hat too many times? Have we reached the point where we've exhausted our ability to reallistically look at the work that needs to be done and our capacity to do it and organizations just bite off more than they can chew as a matter of course.
I think we can all agree, at some point this reduces the teams ability to do good work and rather encourages teams to simply do whatever it takes to look like they're working.
What is your advice to my friend? How would you deal with an impossible to achieve expectation? Have you ever experienced something like this?