Deadline Abuse: The Project Management Horror Story


“Deadlines” are the sacred chalice of many corporate control freaks. Little time is spent in declaring them as law, yet much a grand inquisition ensues upon missing of said deadline. Fewer terms have been abused, misunderstood, and out-right mutilated as much as the now infamous “deadline.” But fear not, as the term can be reclaimed for the good of all!

Deadline: The Once and Noble King of Press

The origin of the word “deadline” comes from the American Civil-War. It described the hellish conditions by which prisoners were killed if they stepped over a line on the ground defining their “space.” It was not until the 1920s that the term moved over to define the time by which a newspaper must go to press to be ready for the next day.

These two uses are related in this way: Deadline represented an external limitation beyond your control. Newspapers ABSOLUTELY HAD to be ready by the next day or they would not be able to provide any value to the market. Because of this, editors make choices where everything is “optional” except the deadline. It was a great example of learning to understand what we can and cannot control, and then managing ourselves accordingly.

The Hyperbolic Mutilation of Deadlines

This term caught on in other industries as well. Whenever an external uncontrollable event was defined, the term “deadline” would come to apply. If there is a major public event, PR companies have a “deadline” to prepare for it. If the weather is changing, farmers have a “deadline” to manage their crops. These are appropriate uses of “deadline.”

Much like the word “literally” which has come to mean anything but, now “deadline” has fallen into hyperbolic disrepute. Like the blonde teenager saying, “I literally can’t even,” project mangers, C-levels, and other team leaders have come to use “deadline” to represent any goal or desired outcome. It would be like if hospitals put everyone with a cold in triage. Deadlines have lost their proper use, and worse, are being used to abuse others.

Real Deadlines Are Critical, Fake Ones Are Dangerous Distractions

Identifying real deadlines are critical to the success of any business, but they should be real deadlines:

  • We run out of money in X days
  • Major public event is happening on X date
  • Our buying season starts/ends on X date
  • The new tax law takes effect on X date

Identifying the true “deadlines” in your organization make it easier to make crticial decisions. You can never have everything you want, and deadlines help you identify what is truly important.

Fake deadlines, on the other hand, will lead you to make bad decisions:

  • I want this done in two weeks because… I think it should take that long
  • We need this by tomorrow because so-and-so is coming in and we want to impress them
  • I have a board meeting next week and want to look good

The most prevalent mistake is prioritizing the urgent over the important. None of the truly important projects in an organization are things which can be done “quickly.” It’s the long-running efforts that have the largest return. If your management is obsessed with fake deadlines, the important things won’t ever get attention.

Wait, How Do You Stay Productive Without Deadlines?!

If the only way you and your team can be productive is by berating them with deadlines, then you have more problems than I can address here. The world of software development has been solving this problem for a long time: Agile Methology. In a nutshell, it means staying focused on maintaining consistant productivity INSTEAD of trying to define dates and schedules no one has control over.

I am not going to dive into Agile Methology here (after all, you have Google) but it has evolved as engineers butted heads with management over the last few decades. Creating drama and pressure doesn’t help productivity, but focusing on productivity can be helpful. Here is a quick summary of what ACTUALLY helps productivity (yes, this is part of Agile):

  • Are current priorities clearly established and communicated?
  • Are the people actually doing the work in as few meetings as possible?
  • Are the goals broken up into small, achievable, and demostrable chunks?
  • Have you clearly defined the standards of quality/workmanship each goal should achieve?
  • Do the goals in your project match up with your deadlines in such a way that success is not a gamble? (is there room for error and adjustment)

After all, good team members work hard and just need to know that what they focus on matters. If you have to whip someone into productivity you shouldn’t have them on your team (or you shouldn’t be on the team). Give people clear goals, and they will do their best to achieve them. If good people miss good goals, then one of those two things weren’t really that good. (Hint: it’s usually not people.)

Deadlines Are Delusional!

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but as the story goes, that was the first contractor awarded. Like all “visionary entreprenuers” — the founders of Rome didn’t listen to the engineer with all his “negativity” and “lazy timelines,” they liked the guy who said he could do it all in day. Of course, after the conman took all the money and ran, they come crawling back to the engineer with a “slim budget.” Something we engineers are used to hearing.

As Warren Buffet said: “You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.” As disturbing as that idea is, it represents the core issue at hand: to succeed you have to be able to distinguish between what you can and cannot control. We all have the same amount of time in a day, and we all have to learn to be wise with that time.

Deadline abuse is basically a mental illness, as it attempts to control the chaos of life with emotional bullying and drama instead of taking responsibility to understand problems. If you don’t understand why something is taking so long, try to learn instead of burdening others around you with your frustration.

But What If We Fail?

“But what if we will fail if we can’t make the deadline?” Then fail. Accept reality, understand the limitation of you and your team, and deal with them. Better to reach the end of an endeavor knowing everyone did their best and can move on with healthy relationships, than scorching the earth around you in the fire and fury of spilled-over misplaced expectations. Those who think failure is possible are usually more likely to prepare and overcome it than those who refuse to accept it as a reality.