Impossible Schedules Reinforce No Thinking


I've been thinking a lot about impossible schedules. I'm talking about the project schedules that no matter how you organize the project, it's not possible for this group of people to cram that set of features into this much time. At least, the developers don't think so.

If people are up against impossible schedules, in my experience, they stop thinking. They cannot imagine a new technique or tool will help them. So even if their configuration management is in the pits, they will limp along instead of acquiring and using a new tool. And a change in technique is even worse. People who can't imagine any way to success resist any ideas like iterations, implementing by feature, test-driven development, or even peer review of code. (This happens to testers too, it's just that my examples here are for development.)

People aren't stupid. When they're up against an impossible schedule, they will hunker down and do what they can, so they won't be fired. That's all.

But with merely a difficult schedule, people will consider alternatives. They know that with alternatives they could make this into a not-so-difficult schedule, and they may be willing to take the chance on a different technique or tool — or even both.

So if you have an impossible schedule, don't try to change anything. Or, change enough of the schedule that people have a little breathing room to try something new. But don't expect people to try something new in an impossible schedule. The personal risk is too high. It's much safer not to take a risk and miss the schedule than it is to take a risk with something new and miss the schedule.

So if you want your project staff to think, make a difficult schedule, and then set a personal challenge: “How can we make this schedule more reasonable?” In my experience, this is the kind of challenge many of us thrive on. But don't set a stretch goal. That discourages thinking and will encourage people to throw out any good ideas that have not yet become good habits.

4 thoughts on “Impossible Schedules Reinforce No Thinking”

  1. The push can be helpful, especially if it clarifies the goals and aspirations. It still feels awful though 🙂 until you get into the context deeply enough. That just took me a month (coming from ecommerce development to a data warehouse team).
    The hard bit is explaining why a reliable promise is not possible yet. People who are themselves under pressure will want demonstrable progress from us, and will want to know when they can have it.
    So, when time is critical, how little can we deliver quickly and still provide benefit? And how long do we have before we have to make some reliable promises about progress?
    I discovered a piece today by Kem Caner (via Brian Marick) that I found helped me to think about this:
    Hope it helps someone else too.

  2. Adam Jacobson

    the question is: What’s difficult and what’s impossible?
    I work mostly with software implementation rather than development. Ask a Big Four firm whether they could accomplish something which a smaller firm has to do routinely, they would say impossible.
    BTW, why did you bold “in my experience”. People giving you flack? Its your blog so of course its your experience.

  3. Johanna,
    We have a large post hanging in the planning area for our program (a $2B spacecraft project).
    “You can con people into accepting a suicidal schedule, but you can’t con them into meeting it.”
    Without proper planning process noone will ever know if the schedule is “meetable.”
    The schedule tradeoff process is continuous as is the performance measurement, risk assessment and mitigation, and rolling wave planning. Without these (and probably many more) process the schedule becomes imposible without anyone actually knowing it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: