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Volume 16, Issue 14;   April 6, 2016: Irrational Deadlines

Irrational Deadlines

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Some deadlines are so unrealistic that from the outset we know we'll never meet them. Yet we keep setting (and accepting) irrational deadlines. Why does this happen?
The deadline at Rock Island Prison during the U.S. Civil War

View inside the wall of the Rock Island Military Prison, a Union Civil War prison near Rock Island, Illinois. The row of white stakes marks the so-called "deadline," which in prisons of the era was a line not to be crossed. Typically it was 19 feet from the inside of the stockade wall. If a prisoner were to cross the deadline, or even reach over it, guards had standing orders to shoot to kill. Many prisoners died crossing the deadline. Construction and marking of deadlines varied, but at Rock Island it consisted of a row of white stakes, marked by lanterns at night. The lanterns in this shot are visible on stake #3 and stake #6, counting from foreground to background.

The meaning of "deadline" in this context carries a clear connotation of inflexibility.

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of the Army Rock Island Arsenal Museum, by way of the U.S. National Park Service.

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 enter
that 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Brainstorming: I  Next Issue

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