The term deadline dates to the 1840s, according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer. A hundred years later, two new phrases appear: hard deadline and soft deadline. They refer to deadlines that are, respectively, inflexible and flexible, a curious distinction, considering that the original connotation of deadline was inflexibility.
In project management, the need to distinguish deadlines by their flexibility arises, in part, from the hope that we can schedule projects as precisely as, say, showings in movie theaters. Scheduling projects is tricky at best, because uncertainties inherent in the work always intrude. We're almost always late, and at times really, really late. Sometimes, we don't finish at all.
Even when late, we maintain our schedule illusions. We actually have a word for adjusting schedules — slip — that makes re-scheduling seem like a minor, unavoidable mishap. And every time we slip, deadline loses more of its connotation of inflexibility. By now, its connotation of inflexibility is so eroded that we need a way to restore it. The phrase hard deadline meets that need. And if we have hard deadlines, we must have soft deadlines. It's only fair.
What we really need are rational deadlines.
Rational deadlines are set according to the estimated duration of the work — no other factors enter. When we set deadlines to meet other needs, we risk departing from reality. Here are some of the needs that lead to setting irrational deadlines.
- Managing the budget
- Some managers use deadlines as budget control tools. They believe that tight deadlines limit spending by simply terminating budget authority. But when the deadline nears and the work is incomplete, we extend both schedule and budget, sometimes repeatedly. Oh well.
- Motivating people
- When leadership skills and compensation-based incentives don't motivate people to work soul-killing hours, some managers hope that tight deadlines can help close the gap. Burnout is a common result.
- Compensating for late starts
- Decision makers sometimes make decisions with considerably less urgency than they impose on project teams, hoping that tight deadlines for project execution can compensate for lengthy pre-execution decision cycles. To some extent, they do compensate, but the price is lower quality and higher turnover.
- Keeping secret schedule reserves
- Some believe Rational deadlines are set
according to the estimated
duration of the work —
no other factors enterthat because projects are always late, telling teams the actual need-by dates is foolish. Instead, they tell teams some earlier date, to impose enough pressure to get the job done on time. Unfortunately this practice deepens the distrust between managers and the managed.
- Compensating for revenue shortfalls
- When in financial distress, some organizations seek revenue from new offerings. The pressure to produce these products and services can be intense, often appearing as irrational deadlines. But financial salvation remains elusive, if the root causes of the financial distress include anything other than gaps in the company's product lineup.
Setting objectives that address real organizational needs is sensible. Setting irrational deadlines for projects isn't sensible — it merely intensifies those real organizational needs. Setting irrational deadlines is management malpractice. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Restarting Projects
- When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage,
we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't.
There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
- Seeing Through the Fog
- When projects founder, we're often shocked — we thought everything was moving along smoothly.
Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that we had — or could have had — enough
information to determine that trouble was ahead. Somehow it was obscured by fog. How can we get better
at seeing through the fog?
- Resuming Projects: Team Morale
- Sometimes we cancel a project because of budgetary constraints. We reallocate its resources and scatter
its people, and we tell ourselves that the project is on hold. But resuming is often riskier, more difficult
and more expensive than we hoped. Here are some reasons why.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand
— content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are
outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those
that relate to organizational politics.
- More Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix
- The Eisenhower Matrix is useful for distinguishing which tasks deserve attention and in what order.
It helps us by removing perceptual distortion about what matters most. But it can't help as much with
some kinds of perceptual distortion.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 7: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: II
- Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies. Available here and by RSS on March 7.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.