Want to be more productive? Think about axing deadlines!

Are deadlines stifling your productivity? Take a closer look at the importance you place on IT project deadlines.

Smashing deadlines

Feels great missing a deadline doesn't it?

Err, actually...No! 

Of course, you could take solace from the fact that a lot of project deadlines are missed by a lot of PMOs every day – you only have to look at the statistics on projects that fail to get a sense of that, but it won't make you feel any better. When you're picking through the debris of a failed project there really is no safety in numbers – you're on your own to face the music.

A lot of people do miss deadlines, though, even the spectacular Sydney Opera House completed 10 years late and $95m over budget so cut yourself some slack.

If missing a deadline takes you back to your school days and missed deadlines for handing homework – you're not alone. That's where the "need" for deadlines was probably hard-wired into all of us.  From that very first teacher setting that very first homework assignment you’ve believed that without a due date no task would ever get done. It's a paradigm that has been handed down from generation to generation and it's flawed.

The problem is that most deadlines are arbitrary.

They're artificial and whilst they provide a stretch target they are often negative in their impact. Deadlines driven by a financial bonus, a need to meet a year-end or a commitment made in a board meeting (etc.) can serve no purpose other than provide a false measure against which to potentially fail.

Take the example of the Sydney Opera House. Yes, a decade late, yes over budget – but have you been? If you were sat inside on opening night enjoying Prokofiev's War and Peace or stood by the harbor gazing in wonder at that soaring white roof – do you think you'd care? It took as long and cost as much to build as it was meant to – to achieve its target goal.

And many IT projects are the same.

Ditch the deadlines?

So could you get rid of deadlines altogether?

In many respects, deadlines are like a comfort blanket. You tell yourself that everything needs a deadline. It's a way of holding yourself accountable and because many things in your life need to be completed by a certain date (medical examinations, vehicle inspections, and tax returns) you buy into the illusion that it's true of all things. It isn't.

Parkinson’s Law, that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, also feeds the illusion. By this thinking, if there were no deadlines then work would expand infinitely to fill the rest of time. This is nonsense too of course. In reality, work fills the time that you are at work, then you clock off and go home and come back and finish it the next day or the day after. Other stimuli like KPIs provide much better checks against project deviance.

What matters in most IT projects is that the work gets done to the best possible standard and imposing a fake deadline can seriously impact on the potential of that happening. Sure, the Sydney Opera House could have been finished in 1963 and for the $7m it was meant to cost but chances are it might not have taken your breath away in quite the same way.

What also happens with a lot of IT projects (and the Sydney Opera House too, I believe) is that the deadline is way out there in the future so when the workload is planned it's not given due diligence. I mean, you plan the work, but the deadline is a dot on the horizon so you don't attribute the same urgency and allocate resources in the way that you would in the weeks just before the due date.

You did it school. You'd get a homework assignment that was due in a week and instead of chipping away at the task piece by piece, night after night, you did the whole thing the night before or on the bus going into school the day it was meant to be handed in.

In defense of the disorganized, there is a deep psychological reason for this – the "planning fallacy." The human brain, it seems, has a wonderfully confident view when it comes to estimating how long something will take to do, and more often than not underestimates or fails to plan for problems.

Without an arbitrary deadline, though, you don't have to plan this way. A six-month project will take six months and if it comes up against problems it will take six and a half, but upon delivery it will achieve everything that it set out to do.

Establish your priorities

Another problem is that some projects are time dependent and do need a deadline but by setting deadlines for everything you run the risk of prioritizing the wrong things and missing important targets. I recently consulted on a project that had to go live on a set date – it was non-negotiable – but the PMO tasked with delivering the project was struggling so we carried out a gap analysis. It turned out this PMO was busily working on other projects that had arbitrary, artificial deadlines that fell chronologically ahead of the immovable one. These fake deadlines, agreed just to give some sense of accountability, were in real danger of derailing a business case focused, strategically crucial project. In the end, the smaller projects were allowed to simmer while the larger one was given full attention and delivered on time.  

It is a case of doing what needs doing when it needs doing.

Having established priorities along those lines you work on one project or task at a time until it’s finished and the work (contrary to Parkinson's law) gets done because you cannot move onto something else until you have completed your current task.

In this deadline free utopia, you can organize your workload, for example, by using a Kanban flow system – a visual process management system that flags up tasks that need doing in the order that they need completing. Tasks are picked by the next available most appropriate project team member and it is the volume of queued "stuff to do" that motivates task completion much better than artificial deadlines. Such lean management systems eliminate waste from processes and uneven burdens and workloads so the fake deadlines are not needed in the first place.

Imposing deadlines for everything can send very negative messages to your PM team and it creates a stifled feeling of being micro-managed. Organizations should trust teams to do their work just because it needs doing – not because of some randomly set deadline. Those that can't need to consider who they are hiring because a team of clipboard box tickers will not lift your organisation above your competitors.

A deadline free environment, meanwhile, encourages autonomy, creativity and engenders an 'all in it together' team spirit.

But it's a big step, so try this yourself.

When you get back to work, for just two weeks, don't multitask! Resist the temptation to spin lots of plates and prioritize work based on urgency and importance. When you start a project - finish it! Don’t move onto the next job until you've completed your previous one! Keep a diary of your results. How much more motivated are you? Are you achieving more high standard project completions? How much more task-focused are you? Do you feel less stressed? Are you completing tasks quicker? 

Now imagine the same focus across your Project Management operation!

You may never set an arbitrary deadline again!

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