Deadline Damage Control (Or, Why Hope Had to Die)



You already know how this ends. You’ve got a task or project to complete. Time is steamrolling closer to that deadline. Bad news: there’s just no way your project will be done by then. You can hope, pray, communicate, adjust, or even cry. Tough call! What do you do first to salvage a lousy situation? How do you handle missing deadlines?

Option #1:

Hope is a natural first instinct. It’s easy to believe that if you cross your fingers and work hard enough, you’ll be able to pull off another success in the nick of time. It’ll be a close call, but you’ve succeeded in circumstances like these before. Maybe you can do it again this time…

Hope is one seriously enchanting state of mind. But let’s make it really clear: hope is not a strategy. Hope is an escape from admitting mistakes. Hope is an evasion from delivering important uncomfortable information to those who need it.

When you hope, it’s easy to not take any action. Why? Because it’s way more tempting to hope a situation will get better than to take responsibility and do what’s needed. So hope can be a huge barrier to changing your behavior.

If you’ve got projects that are in serious danger of missing deadlines, you can hope it will succeed anyway. What happens is that you use the hope as your own personal reality distortion field. Instead of communicating disagreeable news ahead of time to whomever you’re accountable to, you end up praying the deadline will be met.

Option #2: Adjust

Say you promised your client you would have a more effective solution to their problem within two weeks. A week and a half passes, and although you’ve made progress, your project is far from over…at least the way you see it now. How do you get the project done on time and still deliver a great solution?

Take stock of your original commitment. Identify the core parts of your project that will fulfill the requirements and still produce a superior result. Part of that process includes distinguishing your ideal version from a “good enough” version. Remember that the market rewards “good enough”, if “good enough” is better than what people have now.

Scaling back the scope of your work forces you to deal with perfectionism. It can be personally challenging to have reality get in the way of “what this project should look like.”

Software developers experience this issue every time they release a new version of their project. How do they decide what goes in this current version and what gets saved for next time? At some point, somebody draws a line. Where do you draw yours?

Option #3: Communicate

Have you ever been highly doubtful your project would be delivered on time, even when your colleagues and managers expected it to be? It’s very normal, and what you do at this point can make or break your effectiveness.

One of the most useful tools you’ve got is your ability to communicate. And the most effective way to bridge the disconnect is to get the facts straight with the appropriate co-workers. So when your project is running behind or you realize that you will be missing deadlines, it’s time to let the boss know.

Confession? Hardly. When you talk facts, there’s no blame. There’s no shame. There’s what got done, what didn’t get done, what still needs to get done, and what can be improved for the future. There’s who did their work and who didn’t do their work. There’s your role and the effect you had on others.

Many people are afraid to talk about perceived failures. They are concerned that making mistakes looks bad. It’s easier for them to avoid communicating about difficult topics, so they don’t. Is it a big surprise that it gets a lot more uncomfortable for them when the deadlines arrives without the promised deliverables?

If you don’t address unmet expectations, you can hurt your reputation. You can be seen as unreliable or incompetent. Contrast that with being vulnerable and admitting you made a mistake: either you overestimated what you could deliver or you underdelivered on a reasonable request.

Effective communication is the key to consistent high performance over time.

Option #4: Combine Strategies

The best teams work in sync through a combination of adjustment and communication. That creates a positive feedback loop where team leaders address expectations and make course corrections as necessary, all the way up to project completion.

What would help you be more effective when you’re going to be missing deadlines?

This post is the third in a three-part series on deadlines. The other two articles are “Why Deadlines Are Useful” and “How to Overcome Deadline Sabotage“.