First, I’d like to make it clear that I’m talking about deadlines from a product point of view. All of this might not be relevant for service based work.

What do we need deadlines for?

Might sound like a stupid question with a lot of different answers. I reckon the main purpose of a deadline is to co-ordinate groups of people to efficiently achieve a combined goal.

What’s bad about deadlines then?

They’re inflexible. This combined with the unexpected nature of things can lead to deciding between sacrificing the quality of the product or delaying it; this is a shitty decision to have to make.

So, given the above, how should we go about using deadlines?

First, I think you should avoid using one if you don’t need it. If you need to motivate a person or group to finish something in a timely matter, positively rewarded goals or milestones might be a better choice.

If you do need a deadline, here’s how I think it should be done:

The people building the product set the deadline.

  • The only people who know how long it will take to build something are the builders.

Set deadlines from the bottom up.

  • Each person within a group should look at their tasks and determine how long it will take them to do it. Once they have set a deadline for their part, it’s their responsibility to meet it.
  • A manager should NOT be setting the deadline for everyone in a group. They should be collecting the deadlines set by members of their group, doing a sanity check, finding the critical path, adding wiggle room if necessary and finally determining a higher level deadline from that.

People with more experience should be helping people with less experience set their deadlines.

  • People with less experience tend to underestimate how long things will take. Underestimation leads to that shitty decision I mentioned earlier.
  • This does not mean that the person with more experience should be doing time estimation. The only person who knows how long a task will take is the person doing it.
  • The more experience should help by pointing out things that might not have been considered.

DO NOT let anyone else convince you to reduce your deadline. If you do, it’s your responsibility, not theirs.

  • If a manager can’t accept your deadline because it’s too long, there is something else wrong that needs to be addressed first. For example, if there is a lack of resources, deadlines should be extended to take this into account (or to give time to find more resources).

It’s each person’s responsibility to immediately notify their manager if they think they will not meet their deadline.

  • Figure out how much extra time will be needed to complete the task.
  • The manager needs to use up some wiggle room and check to see if their deadline has been affected. If affected, the problem bubbles up until the extra time needed has been absorbed.

Changes in specs will mean re-evaluating and re-adjusting deadlines.

  • You can’t have more (or even different) for nothing.

“Crunch time” is a symptom of poor deadline management and practices. Practising the above will help reduce and eventually eliminate it.

People need a relaxed environment to be creative and to come up with good solutions. It’s every manager’s duty to provide this for their team.