I have recently been intrigued by the phenomenon of leaders committing to dates that are obviously too aggressive. Everyone can tell that the committed date is highly unlikely, but the world seems to conspire to force the commitment from the leader and accept that commitment as realistic.
I've been trying to understand what is going on here. The leader must also understand how aggressive and unlikely the date commitment is. While some of these commitments are met, a 10% likely date can only be met one in ten times. Some managers and customers push for this aggressiveness in a belief that the project team is somehow padding their schedules. They believe that the schedule is not really too aggressive if the team would put their shoulders to the task. Their belief is that a good project leader can meet an aggressive schedule.
Another reason managers and customers push for aggressive dates is a belief that they have no choice. Someone else, such as their own managers and customers, are pushing for an aggressive date from them. They said "yes" to their own aggressive delivery, and now are desperate for ways to meet their own overly aggressive commitments.
These factors help to explain why someone might push for an aggressive schedule. Unfortunately, they don't help us understand why a good project leader would agree to an overly aggressive schedule. I have tended to believe that good leaders would value meeting their commitments enough to withstand these pressures.
One thought comes to me: Perhaps it is easier to agree to a date and miss it than it is to set a realistic date and meet it. Leaders understand that there are costs to the team missing their date commitments. Those costs include the re-planning costs, the difficulty of telling the stakeholders about the schedule slip, some loss of credibility and possibly some negative accountability.
On the other hand, leaders understand that there are also costs to not agreeing to an unrealistic date request. In the worst case, the team looses the project to a lower bidder. More commonly, those costs are disappointing the customer, sometimes angry pressure to concede, and spending more time explaining why the date is later than hoped for.
I'm wondering if leaders perceive that avoiding the up-front pain is worth the potential future pain. That is, the prospect of missing the date is less daunting than the prospect of admitting you can not meet it to begin with. This may be a basic inability to evaluate risk and consequences, but I don't think so. It may also be an over-valuing of "hope" as a success strategy, but I think this is more of a result than a cause. I think the cause is that some managers and customers actually make the consequences of not agreeing to a date greater than the consequences of missing a date.
Remember that if the leader doesn't agree to the date, there is a chance the team will lose the project. That is a pretty big consequence. That chance is often much greater than the chance of losing the customer after a date slip. We see this in the number of public works projects that grossly miss their dates, but were the result of a lowest-bid contract.
But I don't think we have to use this drastic example. This problem persists even when there is no chance of losing the job by giving a realistic date commitment. This occurs primarily when the accountability model for missing a date is not really clear. A leader who sees that he or she is accountable for the consequences of a missed date will value making better commitments.
I am not suggesting that we need to set up better punishments. Accountability is simply the other side of the coin of responsibility. The effective leader needs to feel that he or she has to live with the result of missing a date, whether that consequence includes future loss of business, reduced market penetration, or simply lost opportunity cost.
The question we need to ask ourselves is "Do we give our leaders sufficient accountability to motivate them to set dates the team can meet, or do we make it easier to agree to unreasonably aggressive dates?" Would you rather say "no" or be late?