Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 14;   April 6, 2016:

Irrational Deadlines

by

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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Icelandic currentsRestarting 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.
US Space Shuttle LaunchSome Causes of Scope Creep
When we suddenly realize that our project's scope has expanded far beyond its initial boundaries — when we have that how-did-we-ever-get-here feeling — we're experiencing the downside of scope creep. Preventing scope creep starts with understanding how it happens.
A bobsled teamTeam Thrills
Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. How can we make it happen more often?
The Dalles of the St. Croix RiverThe Politics of the Critical Path: II
The Critical Path of a project is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. We don't usually consider tasks that are already complete, but they, too, can experience the unique politics of the critical path.
Assembling an IKEA chairSeven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule.

See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.