Deadlines are part of every project.  There will be easy deadlines, difficult deadlines, and probably even some ‘never-going-to-make-it’ deadlines on your projects imposed either by you, your customer, executive management, or just circumstances way outside of your control.  The key is to not let deadlines eat you and your team alive and keep them in perspective.

Sometimes you have flexibility with deadlines and sometimes they are set in stone and cannot be moved for any reason.  But 99% of the time a missed deadline is not the end of the world.  Let’s look at deadlines further in the first of two parts on seven key project deadline points.

They may be set early on purpose

If your company’s management is accustomed to missed deadlines, it may fall into the habit of imposing an early deadline - in the hopes that you will finish your project by the time they really need it. For example, the president must have your report no later than May 1; you are given a final deadline of April 1, in the belief that the extra four weeks will be enough time to complete the job.

Setting early deadlines only encourages continuing failure to meet them; thus, the problem is intensified rather than solved. The best way to overcome this situation is to meet the early deadline whenever possible.  By doing so, you’ll prove that you can meet deadlines and those ‘early’ deadlines are less likely to be imposed on your project teams in the future as management recognizes your continued ability to meet enforced project deadlines.

Management may accept missed deadlines

Top management may not be happy about the fact that deadlines are often missed, but it may live with the situation because “everyone does it.” This is not an acceptable solution to the overall problem, and it should never be used as a reason for missing the deadline on your project - under any circumstances whatsoever.  Again, always strive to meet project deadlines to build your reputation as someone who meets their commitments.  Customer satisfaction will soar and it will only help your reputation in the organization.

Management may accept missed deadline

Management may depend on your timely delivery to decide on other matters

To a project manager deeply involved in the details of keeping a project on schedule, the immediate deadline may seem like the highest priority. Remember, though, management may be waiting on the results of your project to decide other matters. If you miss your deadline, the consequences may be more far-reaching than just your project. Ideally, you’ll know this in advance and can note it in your project schedule.  That would be an example of management communicating well and fairly with you and your project team.  However, you can’t count on this being the case so the best fall back is to always strive to meet your project deadlines.

One of your responsibilities is keeping management apprised of the project status

As the project manager, you are charged with the duty of letting management know what’s going on - just as you are accountable for budgets, schedules, and results in your capacity as a department manager. Missed deadlines and emerging problems (with proposed solutions) should be conveyed upwards and as early as possible. The pipeline from you to top management should be open and consistent; hopefully, information will flow in both directions.

Delays may be acceptable, not because they happen frequently, but because of other delays beyond your project

Management may express little concern when you advise them that your project will be late. Don’t assume that this means your missed deadline is not a problem. It may be that other delays have made your original deadline less critical.

Example: You have been given the project of implementing a new timekeeping software solution for your organization. Do to some project delays, you must inform senior management that your project is going to be delivered six weeks later than originally planned.  Their response is “No problem.” What you don’t know, however, is that human resources and accounting are going through some internal changes that make it necessary for the company, as a whole, to roll out the new timekeeping system five months later than originally planned.  Ideally, you and your team would be included in this information loop, but don’t bet on it.

You can ask for an extension

Some project managers fear telling management that their projects won’t be completed on time, so they take the worst possible course: saying nothing. When you’re under pressure to complete a number of phases and meet a final deadline, it’s easy to overlook the fact that you can ask for an extension, and that it might be granted. This is far better than just letting the matter drop and not communicating with management at all.  Not communicating a project issue – especially a critical deadline issue – is very bad for you and your project.  Keep management well informed of issues on your project as early as possible.

Approving deadline extention

You might overcome delays by looking for shortcuts

Upon review, you may conclude that a project deadline will be missed because you’ve fallen behind schedule. But that’s not always the case. You may be able to make up the lost time by taking shortcuts between now and the final deadline.

For example, some phases may be executed in a shorter time span than you’ve allowed. Perhaps you’ve built a time cushion into the later phases and can now take advantage of it.  Sit down with your team – and the customer, if appropriate – and review the schedule to identify areas where you can ‘take back’ some time in order to meet the current deadline requirements.

A word of caution concerning shortcuts: Be sure they save time without also shorting the results or the quality of your team’s effort or negatively impacting the project budget. It may better to be late than to implement on time with issues or to do so at the expense of the project budget.