Question: I was handed a new project by my boss to deliver a new product for our company’s biggest customer. It really is not a new project but it is a high profile product that the company has been working on for a year. I was excited to get this responsibility since I was recently promoted to a Director in the company about six months ago.

After two weeks, I am wondering if this project is career suicide.

One of the first things I did was to figure out why we were behind schedule and determined the project is too aggressive. The customer expects delivery in four months and realistically, we can deliver in about eight months.

There are many issues causing the delays such as poorly defined expectations and unclear accountability.

A key employee on the team is telling me he is unable to deliver his portion of the project until June. His contribution to the project represents 40% of the project’s deliverables. The rest of the team is not able to proceed without completing his part. Without his cooperation, the project can derail quickly.

The CEO is not happy with the realistic schedule and does not want to tell the customer that we need to delay delivery. He expects me to turn it around and get it done.

His response is not surprising. Since joining the executive team, there is a common theme of over-promising and under delivering. There is significant pressure to be positive about any projections even if we know we cannot do it.

I have been with the company for several years. My approach is to be realistic and deliver 100% of my commitments. Not meeting commitments is unacceptable. I am feeling tremendous pressure, any suggestions?

Doug in Texas

Answer: On a personal level, your approach to being realistic is commendable and the pressure to be optimistic on an executive team is very common. Being over-optimistic can create havoc, especially when the reality is it cannot get done. When employees feel compelled to go with the flow instead of putting issues on the table, execution will suffer. Team members shift from getting something done to finding themselves on a trip to trip to Abilene.

If you had the project from the onset, you may have been able to influence the schedule differently. You may assume that troubled project seems like a different scenario, the reality is you may have still found yourself in a crunch with the customer.

As a Director, you will take on higher level projects with more complexity and less line of sight. Your role is not to be in the details, it is to manage the big picture and appoint the right managers or team leaders under you. Scheduling periodic reviews to assess progress against milestones will help prevent surprises. It will not eliminate surprises.

As an executive team member, you will face trade-offs, which may impact your ability to deliver against your personal goal of meeting 100% of your commitments. There will be situations where compromise is necessary to meet everyone’s objectives with the lowest amount of risk.

The best approach with the CEO and executive team is to be objective and identify the costs and benefits of the project. Consider these factors in the equation:

  • Time – how fast do you want to get it done?
  • Cost – what are you willing to pay to get it done?
  • Quality – what level of completeness or detail are you willing to accept?

The equation plays out this way.

If you want quality and fast delivery, it will cost you more to get it done.

If you are willing to let timing slip, you can manage costs and get a quality product.

If you let quality slip, you can get it faster and cheaper.

There is a balancing act between each of these factors, and when one of them is not working, expect to up the ante in another area to get the project back on track.

Determine which part of the equation is least desirable and which part has the most wiggle room. From your story, I will bet the CEO is willing to put more resources or increase development costs to maintain the current schedule and meet the customer’s deadline. Losing your number one customer is not an option; the incremental costs to get it done are a drop in the bucket compared to long term profitability.

The CEO rarely likes to be put into a corner. The best approach is to lay out all the options and let him or her make the decision what to give up. Be prepared to have a plan for each scenario and to articulate your recommended course of action.