Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
The term “deadline” hasn’t been around that long, about 160 years in fact. The first written mentions were in 1863 during the American Civil War. The “dead-line”, as then, was defined as “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot” and shot dead at that. Prison conditions could be so deplorable that some men crossed the line on purpose, some survivors wrote that they had wished they’d crossed it to end their misery. Deadlines in those days were lessons in ultimate liability.
Deadlines as a term wasn’t used much after the Civil War but the serious consequences associated with deadlines were reinforced some 54 years later in connection with the filing of US tax returns. A newspaper article on 30 December 1919 read, “With the deadline set for tomorrow night, the secretary of state expected a flood of petitions and acceptances tomorrow”. The seriousness of another form of deadline emerged and, today, they are associated with meeting a date, rather than death.
But, not incongruously, the link between the original meaning of dead-line and late tax returns was foreseen by the US Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. His now famous 1789 quote on the matter, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes” is widely used and, today, the term deadline is commonplace in all walks of life, including project management.
Project Management Deadlines
The Project Management Institute (PMI) first used the term in their third edition of PMBoK in 2004. This first reference to a deadline was in connection with Human Resources and the possible need to provide additional resources to meet a deadline should there be signs of slippage. By 2017, the Agile Sixth Edition included four mentions but, for some reason, the 2021 Guide to the Seventh Edition reverts to the original singular reference.
Notwithstanding the number of mentions project management proponents have identified that missed deadlines are symptomatic of poorly managed projects. They also advocate that a deadline may be used to motivate people and prevent the procrastination associated with Student Syndrome. Risk is also addressed. Deadlines are required to define the last possible moment for taking action should a risk manifest itself. From a procurement perspective, it is suggested that deadlines may be used as an incentive for suppliers to deliver early with the prospect of a bonus, i.e. a carrot. Alternatively, a deadline, or rather missing it, may impose a predetermined time at which some form of damages may be imposed, i.e. the stick.
Deadlines in project management are inevitably related to time. They can be used as an alert for project teams regarding problems in the schedule rather than working to just start or finish dates. Project managers are taught that deadlines are required to create a sense of urgency and direction to motivate people to get things done. This approach supports the somewhat pessimistic Theory X. “Xers” believe that average human beings are less ambitious and inherently lazy so much so that managers must closely monitor and supervise each employee and, effectively, some say, micromanage.
When success is measured against completing something on time then many projects fail. Delays are realised and not only are internal milestones missed but also that all important forecasted end date and the time for completion. Even if an end date is years ahead and there could be a myriad of unknowns viewed through the rose-tinted speculation of optimism, the end date is the end date. But despite uninformed utopia and political myopia deadlines are missed. And yet, even though we have our project management tools and techniques, delays continue to plague the industries where project management is utilised.
Successful & Unsuccessful Deadlines
Many of us are conditioned to understand that project success is achieved through establishing, managing, and achieving deadlines. These may create a sense of urgency for getting everything done but they can also detract from hitting other deadlines of more significance. This prompts a question; are some deadlines more important than others?
We are also conditioned to schedule due dates for almost everything, and anything. At an extreme, the management of the project can be controlled and even constrained by deadlines and success is measured incrementally based on meeting preordained but not necessarily predetermined dates. Meeting the declared day of a deadline can becomes the blinkered goal rather than considering everything that a project needs at any given time.
“Give me a date” is many a project manager’s cry at progress meetings when some deliverable is late and a catch-up plan, action plan, or workaround is demanded. People hope that, by meeting such a demand, short term targets will be ensured and the illusion of meeting the long-term schedule will be realised. However, the creation of short-term deadlines can destroy opportunities to replan and account for changes in the project environment and accounting for risks that may have been realised and resolved.
Baseline schedules can become so sacrosanct that they are akin to being written in tablets of stone. Contractually this may be the case. However, and while most of us will use one of many brands of proprietary scheduling software that are designed to allow for change, it’s amazing that despite the tools at our disposal, this sophisticated software is used to record and explain delay rather than seeking the opportunity to reschedule. We shouldn’t take our eye off the ball of detail and short-term targets, but we also need to keep a weather eye open on the bigger picture.
We often hear the mantra of Plan, Do, Check, Action but when it comes to missing deadlines how often does it become Plan, Delay, Cancel, Apologize. Original targets fall by the wayside, and we are told to ‘stick to the plan’, even though it’s obviously wrong. The acquisition and definition of new targets is stultified if dogmatic rigidity is enforced. When things change it can be more comfortable to try and stick to an original schedule and avoid replanning and focus on history and try to apportion blame. When things change and, in reality, they do, there is a need for geography which, when coupled with the fortitude and courage to change a deadline or two, can lead to the flexibility and adaptability needed to plan a new route to completion.
Deadlines for Deadlines’ Sake
The late British Author Douglas Adams had a view on deadlines…”I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. He had difficulty with deadlines as set by the BBC and various publishers, but he succeeded in writing some monumental novels including Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy which amused and inspired us in the 20thcentury and, today, is an international multi-media phenomenon. Although deadlines were defined, and possibly even demanded, they weren’t met, and yet there has been success and enjoyment for everybody and the creation of an unforgettable quip.
Some deadlines are obviously important: catching a flight, buying a loved one’s anniversary gift, attending a birth, attending a funeral, a launch window to Mars. None are necessarily life threatening but they are important and are part of coordinated effort where other people rely on you. And when it comes to life we hear of that so-called work life balance nirvana. However, work deadlines always seem to have a higher importance. But how many deadlines are actually important?
On the premise that deadlines are necessary many managers apply Theory X and set deadlines in order to keep people on their toes. There can be little or no thought as to the possibility or even impossibility of not meeting a deadline or that people are pushed into being rushed only to wait. Setting unrealistic deadlines may give the impression that the impossible is being achieved, but just as nine pregnant women cannot give birth to a single child in one month some things are not only laughable, but both impossible and illogical.
Artificial pressure and constant deadlines do not maximise people’s performance but push them to their limit at every opportunity. This is managerial delusion. People cannot perform at their peak all of the time. Even high-performance vehicles will fail if they are operated continuously at their limit. The elements of wear and tear take their toll and, ultimately, fatigue brings about failure; people too are no exception. Prima donna ballerinas cannot be kept on their toes forever and neither can lesser mortals.
Rising to the occasion may be a recognised strength for some but ‘occasions’ are, by definition, not the norm and happen occasionally. For those who believe in Theory Y, people are generally able to perform well most of the time. People will also perform better when there is an environment of trust and respect where there is job satisfaction, reciprocal appreciation, and collective motivation. This may be achieved through the establishment of realistic and achievable deadlines rather than merely cracking the whip and, without any sign of a carrot or support, expect the accomplishment of the impossible rather than the realty of failure.
Deadlines are with us and, thankfully, being shot dead at a deadline is bygone history. Deadlines are necessary to ensure that things are coordinated but not every single activity needs to have a rigorous and inflexible deadline imposed with draconian despotism.
Artificial deadlines may keep people under the pump, and this may bolster the ego of some managers who believe in Theory X and inherent underperformance. Such imposition of authority through the establishment of unrealistic and unnecessary deadlines requiring impractical rates of progress in an attempt to get more done with fewer people in less time will lead to employee burnout and demoralisation.
Alternatively, if realistic and understood deadlines are defined this will lead to people rising to the challenge. They can, will and do perform better if there is a realisation of a common and collective goal in line with Theory Y rather than an achieving an egotistical managerial target.
In cricket we have the concept of the “ask”. The ‘’ask’’ sets the rate at which the team and individuals must perform to meet a score-line. The “ask” can be difficult and a motivated team will play their heart out, but if you ask too much too often or it’s not possible, then the chances of success are low and there will only be burn out.
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.