Another day, another question on a LinkedIn project management group discussion: “How to refuse your sponsor for the impossible deadline committed to by him?” Or, to put it another way, how do you tell him his lime is actually a lemon?
First of all, you aren’t refusing – you are simply calling his attention to reality. Good project managers are a force for truth. You can’t fit ten pounds of flour in a five-pound sack, as Dolly Parton once said, and no one benefits from spilling a lot of flour all over the floor, trying to make it so.
Explain why the scope to be delivered cannot be done in the time frame the sponsor outlined; ask if it makes sense to cut some things out of scope; then ask if there is budget to add resources. If the sponsor wants to make it about you, reply that you are simply doing the math – the project will not succeed, as currently envisioned. Ask what was the basis for the timeline that he provided. The answer will probably be about lack of support for the project at senior levels, whether it’s said that way or not, or about the sponsor’s personal ambitions. If you’re not making any progress with the cost or scope legs of the triangle, ask if it makes more sense to cancel the project. At that point, he’ll either deflate or explode.
Consequences and Culture
If you simply try to overcome reality (you can’t) in order to please this sponsor (you won’t), you’ll end up as the scapegoat when it becomes obvious the project is going to be late. Better to take the abuse up front, and get whatever credit there is to be had for putting the organization first.
Of course, I say this recognizing that, in some cultures it isn’t easy to stand up to authority. Deference and obedience to the manager are valued over loyalty to the best interests of the organization. I’m describing what I would do, with my American upbringing and cultural values. But even in our culture, it takes a lot of personal integrity to do all of this, especially when the sponsor is an ambitious tyrant. Before signing on to be a project manager, do a gut check: how would you handle this situation? Because you will face it, if you manage projects as a career.