When and why deadlines are bad for projects

I started writing this blog post back in 2017, but I have recently (2021) decided to finish it. I began to write this post due to some unrelatable or impossible deadline I was given at that time. In this post I will share why some deadlines are full of frustration and others give that wonderful feeling of accomplishment.

When deadlines are bad

Sometimes deadlines are not set by ourselves but are brought upon us from management, other times they are part of regulatory requirements or set by suppliers. Deadlines become frustrating when they are terribly planned. It could be that the project you are working on has never been estimated or the people who estimated it did not have the necessary insights to do so. For example a manager that promises a specific date without discussing it with stakeholders or developers.

It can be the what part of the delivery is not fully agreed upon or understood by the manager and the stakeholders. Here it is important to be on the same page in order to minimize miscommunication, which is something that happens in almost all projects. Misunderstandings can lead to scope creep for the development team, but keep in mind it might seem as an obvious need to the stakeholders. The larger the features are the harder this hits the team, smaller things will be missed from time to time, but mission critical features should not. For smaller things the buffer that is usually added to projects should be enough.

If the effort that is put into planning the project and setting the deadline is inadequate, then there is a large chance of setting an "impossible deadline". This is where there is no way you can reach the deadline and everyone knows it. This demotivates the team members on the project and it gets worse if this is not acknowledged by management. Personally I have been on projects where the management were continuously told that the deadline was impossible, but they did not change it. This sets the team up for failure.

For some projects the deadline is fixed by something external. The supplier that you use for hosting might be decommissioning the features that you use or it could be some regulatory requirement (for example GDPR). In this scenario you cannot just move the deadline. You often know these deadlines well in advance and you can plan around them, but sometimes they somehow do not make it into the backlogs of teams. Therefore you get close to the deadline and suddenly you are in a hurry to finish it, as you are already behind schedule to begin with. This can also push other important work aside.

The consequences of terribly planned deadlines are almost always unmotivated employees, which in the end may lead to employees finding employment elsewhere. Stakeholders might find another supplier if the deadlines are missed continuously. It might hit your company financially as other work might get delayed and there may be fines. We need to know what the consequences are if we miss the deadline, sometimes there are close to no consequences.

Should we not have deadlines?

The word deadline sounds very fatal. Some projects have a natural delivery date. This is especially true if you work with regulatory requirements from authorities, here it can be very hard to move a deadline. However most deadlines are not deadlines but are just an estimation of when we believe we will be able to deliver (target delivery date). In many projects there is no true consequence of passing the deadline and not delivering on time. It often comes down to how this is communicated, if stakeholders get told in advance that the project has had some issues they will often be understandable and wait for the extra quality. Sometimes your stakeholders are colleagues, who really do not mind waiting (at least I have been fortunate to have understandable colleagues).

So are deadlines worthless? Not if they are important and make sense. We need to know what went into setting the date of the deadline and it has to make sense to us, both for the scope and timeline. This way the deadline will more easily be accepted by the team, otherwise it is just some arbitrary date. Even better, let the team set their own goals (deadlines).

It is rare that I hear the term deadline and I believe many use the term "goal" instead. Goals sound less fatal, but work a lot like deadlines. They have to be specific, measureable and have an end date (a deadline of the goal huh). An advantage of goals is that they are often set by yourself, your team or at least in collaboration with your manager. This puts emphasis on making them attainable and includes those who are to carry out the goal in setting it.

Deadlines are good when you reach them on time without stressing too much over them. Reaching a deadline and delivering something to the stakeholders gives us a sense of accomplishment (likely not just a sense) and it is highly rewarding.

That is it

I hope you enjoyed my post on deadlines and goals. Let me know down in the comments what you think!