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:
- Films Not About Project Teams: II
- Here's Part II of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be
about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
- Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects
do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress
might be underway?
- Unnecessary Boring Work: I
- Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about
work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
- Deep Trouble and Getting Deeper
- Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're
pretty sure there's no way out.
- Wishful Interpretation: I
- Wishful thinking comes from more than mere imagination. It can enter when we interpret our own observations
or what others tell us. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways our wishes affect how we interpret
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- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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