When is a Deadline Not Really a Deadline?

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  • Do deadlines approach and pass at your organization with barely a mention?
  • Do you work hard to meet deadlines and deliver results, only to see that there is no consequence for fellow team members who rarely finish their work on time?
  • How much time and effort do you waste chasing team members to determine if project activities are on schedule or which projects need extra attention because their deadlines are looming?

What is the deadline culture at your organization?

If you experience any of the above situations with your teams, it’s not too late (no pun intended) to change the expectations and the deadline culture for your entire team!

In fact, it’s your responsibility as (fill in your title here) to set the ‘ground rules’ at the beginning of each project you manage, including a collective understanding of how deadlines will be regarded. If you don’t consciously guide the deadline culture of your teams, a culture will develop on its own (and you probably won’t be pleased with the outcome.)

“The deadline is the deadline unless we formally agree that there is a new deadline.”

In other words, no single team member may change a deadline without following a predetermined guideline for doing so.

To be clear, there is no shame in changing pre-established deadlines, nor is it the goal of the project manager to prevent any changes to the project plan (including timelines). In fact, good leaders and managers are regularly looking at the big picture and actively managing (rebalancing) resources and timelines as changing variables present themselves.

Still not sure if ignoring deadlines is a problem in your organization?

Put yourself in the position of the next person hired to join your department or project team. Will this recently hire person say to herself, “My coworkers really strive to deliver their work on schedule, but I like that there is a clear process in place to adjust deadlines when necessary. I see how my work, and meeting my deadlines, impacts the collective work of my team, and the organization.”

Or, will your new employee quickly learn that, “Although many task and project deadlines are set, no one seems very concerned about meeting them. In fact, if I know I will miss a deadline, it is best that I stay quiet and wait until someone notices and we’ll fix it then.”

Improving the deadline culture at your organization might be easier than you think.

Even with excellent planning, there are many valid reasons why deadlines might need to be adjusted.  No doubt, your team is juggling a full portfolio of projects, which are often competing for the same resources.

  • Be open about the many ways missed deadlines are negatively impacting effectiveness and morale. Clearly express your intent to change past deadline behavior by establishing new guidelines;
  • During planning, set realistic deadlines for project activities and deliverables – this means that deadlines are not artificial, but rather, based on available resources and the scope of each project;
  • Establish clear expectations and guidelines for team members to communicate when approaching deadlines might be in jeopardy. Remembering the basic tenets of The Triple Constraint, it is the project manager’s responsibility to adjust the resources, scope, or schedule proactively, not after the project is off-track and in crisis.

You will soon find that most team members appreciate following a proactive, transparent process for keeping projects moving forward. Changing deadlines for valid reasons should be encouraged – letting deadlines pass with no mention or letting projects languish should not.

Donna Catalano, owner of Eastlake Solutions, helps nonprofit organizations assess and strengthen their internal capacity and position themselves for future growth. Services include consulting, speaking, training, facilitation, and publications in the areas of capacity building, project management, change management, strategic planning, and organizational development. Eastlake Solutions is based in Denver and Chicago – eastlakesolutions.com

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