I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline

“I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.”

Duke Ellington probably didn’t have our modern working world in mind when he said this sentence. For one thing, he died before the information age really took off, and for another, he was a jazz musician. But his statement could not be more topical than it is today.

When I started in the IT industry more than 20 years ago, the world was still simple. The waterfall model was the predominant method for most projects. Goals were clearly defined and manifested in specifications, and deadlines for the individual milestones were clearly defined.

Then the world became agile. And that was good and urgently needed. But with agility and its frameworks (Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming and what they’re all called), the way of working also changed. Software delivery cycles were shortened (from Sprint Delivery to Continuous Delivery), which also led to seeing results faster – and becoming braver to throw away a feature once in a while. That was great, then you could deliver better software to the customer faster. But because of this fast action (which is also demanded by changes in the market), something more and more fell by the wayside – long-term commitment. In the waterfall days, if you asked a manager what was to be delivered in a year, he usually gave you a precise answer in the form of a thick stack of requirements documents. Today things look different. In the worst case, you only get a vague plan for the next two months.

What should lead to reacting more quickly to the market can quickly turn into great uncertainty, in which one would rather not work at all against medium-term defined goals. After all, you are agile. As a result, you lose the feeling of what can be achieved. Not to mention the motivating aspects of clear, time-based goal definitions.

And that is why we want to deal a little with deadlines and commitments today.

Internal and external deadlines

In principle, it is helpful to remember that there are two types of deadlines – internal and external.

External deadlines are (usually) fixed points in time that cannot usually be moved. These are, for example, client deadlines, but can also be specific dates such as concerts or other scheduled events. For example, if you organise a big event for a bank holiday and don’t finish on time, you won’t get another chance until next year … or not.

Client deadlines are also usually static in nature. Even if some deadlines can be moved in dialogue with the client, you should not do this too often, otherwise the client will sooner or later give the job to someone else.

External deadlines are therefore requirements that cannot be easily postponed. They give a clear time target.

Internal deadlines are artificial and help to create structure and make large projects manageable. They are used as an auxiliary construct to create clarity according to the principle of divide and conquer and to distribute the final deadline pressure among small sub-projects. Because instead of having to really slog it out at the end of the project, the “intermediate goals” provide more relaxation and also a sense of achievement in the meantime.

Goal Gradient Effect

Athletes know this phenomenon: you run and run and run (or cycle, swim, or whatever), and no matter how exhausted you are, at the end you suddenly have the reserves. The motivation is high, you give it all you’ve got.

Science calls this effect the goal-gradient effect and basically describes that the closer a person is to a goal, the more effort they will exert to reach it.

Incidentally, this effect can be observed not only in humans. In an experiment with rats, the behavioural scientist Clark L. Hull found that the closer they got to the food in the experimental maze, the faster they ran.

Conversely, the further away you are from your goal, the less motivated you are to reach it.

Columbia University was even able to prove that this effect also occurs when the goal is only artificially created, which brings us back to internal or artificial deadlines. If you choose small intermediate steps for your overall project, this can increase motivation and also make it easier to achieve the overall goal.

In Scrum-based teams, such artificial deadlines are already predetermined by the method. The respective sprint represents a periodic deadline. It helps to keep the framework manageable and to bring the goal (sprint goal) within reach. Incidentally, this is something that is not predetermined by the method in Kanban-led teams, but must be established additionally in order to be able to use the advantages of the goal gradient effect.

Order in chaos

Deadlines have a different significance today than they did 20 years ago. This is because employees work more autonomously and are confronted with more and more tasks. We are provided with a flood of information. The next request from a customer or stakeholder is only an email away. And sorting and prioritising tasks is not always easy. In addition, tasks in the information age are more creative in nature than the throughput-driven tasks of the industrial age.  This means that the outcome cannot always be meticulously planned.

As a leader, it is therefore important to create liabilities through deadlines. Because deadlines enable us to prioritise our tasks better.

If I know that one task has to be done on Friday evening and a second one should only be delivered in three weeks, then I can coordinate my work accordingly. If both tasks are missing, it is almost impossible for the employee to decide which task to work on first.

This sounds banal, but practice shows that many supervisors assign tasks without scheduling them. Freely according to the motto: “My employee will already know by when I want the task to be completed”. But the tacit assumption on the part of the employee’s mind-reading abilities often proves to be a misjudgement.

And this then quickly leads to sentences like: “Why isn’t that done yet?”. With the result that both supervisors and employees are frustrated.

In addition, a clear deadline helps to communicate to the employee in good time when the achievement of the goal no longer seems realistic. This creates the possibility to counteract by making more capacity available for the project, reducing the scope and postponing the deadline (if this is possible).

What should deadlines be?

A good deadline oscillates between two poles – realistic and ambitious.

On the one hand, of course, it has to be realistic. Setting unrealistic goals inevitably leads to frustration. Frustration leads to demotivation and quickly has a working climate in which one project after another fails and employees as well as clients threaten to quit.

On the other hand, deadlines should not be set too laxly. Because if goals are not set ambitiously and you set too much time, two things can happen 1.) Employees feel underchallenged and are therefore demotivated 2.) Someone sees that your employees are not working to capacity and gives them a parallel project.

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Well, what now?

But how do you arrive at a realistic (internal) deadline? Because on the one hand, you have to make sure that it is not set too short in order to achieve failure and thus frustration. On the other hand, it must not be too broad, because you are also pursuing entrepreneurial goals. Well, for one thing, you could organise a certified and calibrated crystal ball that has a forecast of at least 12 months. That would be the most precise approach. If you don’t have one, the following tips can also help you:

SMART – Be smart and set your deadlines smartly. Be specific, measurable, attractive, realistic and terminated. Make sure that it is clear what needs to be done, that success can be measured, that employees feel motivated by it, that the task is realistic and that there is a deadline. And while you’re at it, get into the habit of using the SMART framework for all other goal setting.

Divide and conquer– The classic among problem solvers also applies here. Break your projects down into small pieces and define milestones on the way to the project goal. With deadlines and milestones for individual sub-projects, you can achieve successes more quickly and motivate your employees with them. In addition, it will help you plan more to avoid one or two misjudgments.

Listen to your gut: After the classic approach to problem solving, we now come to the classic wisdom of life – listen to your gut. Sooner or later, we all develop a good sense of how long projects take, regardless of whether you have years of hands-on experience or started as a manager right after graduating. If you then compare your gut feeling with estimates from your experts, then you usually have a fairly realistic deadline. And if you were dramatically wrong – be happy, you learned something and can do it better next time.

Listen to your experts: What did Steve Jobs once say?

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

And that’s exactly what you should do if you start a larger project and are looking for a deadline: ask your experts! For example, who can judge better than your engineers what needs to be done and how long it might take to develop a feature.

Not too short and not too long – Set deadlines realistically, but ambitiously and not too far into the future. Nobody will really take a deadline in two years seriously. Medium projects should have a scope of 2-4 months. Avoid periods longer than 6 months.

Write it down – There is no point in agreeing to a deadline that no one can remember. You ask your employee in 1o1 to do a small task for you by the end of next week. You agree on the scope, the time frame also fits. And then, at the end of the next week, you ask where the paper is. And suddenly you and your colleague start thinking about when the task was due. The conflict is pre-programmed.

Write down the deadline in a way that you can find it again. If a private message is enough, perfect. Otherwise I write it down in a 1o1 document or something similar. For me, it has worked well to create a task in which I write down who has to do what, by when and when it was agreed.

Plan the unplanned – Or in other words: Build in a time buffer. Experts also speak of a double deadline here – one communicated and one in your head. Things can always go wrong. Sometimes, despite all the planning, a construction site appears that takes several weeks. Sometimes colleagues spontaneously become ill. Sometimes you are forced to reschedule due to unforeseeable events in the market. Something can go wrong in any project. It’s good that you thought of this from the start and built in a realistic buffer. Then you can sit back and relax and save yourself a few sleepless nights. But beware! The same applies here: “not too long”. If the buffer is too large to be on the safe side, then the goal can quickly seem ambitious, with the disadvantages listed above.

Be aware of the dependencies – You don’t always have all parts of a project under your control. Ok, if we’re being completely honest, that’s rarely the case. Other departments or even external parts often supply the project. This can make it difficult to shift resources (or take other actions) to accommodate external delays. It is therefore important that you get an overview of the dependencies right from the start. A stakeholder map or a mind map can help to get an overview. Additionally, it can help to assign a control index to your dependencies. For example, 1 for complete control to 5 for no control. This helps you to better assess in advance which parts of the project you should plan for a larger buffer or take a closer look at.

One (or two) battle(s) at a time – Don’t give your employees too many tasks/projects in parallel. This creates too many distractions and prevents them from focusing on their work. Sooner or later this will affect all projects. In the worst case, none of the projects meet their deadlines.

As a manager, it is a good idea to have an overview of the projects that your employees are working on and, if necessary, to introduce a WIP (Work in Progress) limit. As a rule, your employees will not be able to tackle more than 2-3 major topics at the same time without losing focus.Muchdoesn’t always help much.

Prioritize – But as it happens in life, sometimes there are just an incredible number of fires that need to be put out at the same time. But your capacity and that of your employees is limited and you don’t have infinite time at your disposal. The magic word in this case is: Prioritize! Help your employees do this by clearly telling them from the start which project is most important. The order should also reflect the importance with which projects are allowed to fail. A little expert tip: Only change your priorities in an emergency to avoid confusion.

If your superior doesn’t give you a priority, then demand it. Ask which project is most important, second most important, etc. If you don’t get an exact answer, decide the order yourself and ask your boss if he has anything against it. Then at the latest he has to take action.

Reward yourself and others – And when you have achieved your goal in the agreed time, reward your team and yourself for it. As mentioned above, some deadlines can be very ambitious. This can only be achieved if everyone pulls together. This should also be rewarded in the end. Because after the deadline is before the deadline.

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And if things go wrong?

And that brings us to the next topic: What happens if things go wrong?

Clearly, as a manager you take responsibility. After all, you set the deadline and had enough time to take countermeasures during the course of the project. You, and no one else, take the blame for the boss’s or the client’s anger. As a good leader, you are the firewall between your team and the anger.

The next step is to find out what the problem was. Maybe the deadline was too ambitious? Maybe the team is not yet as well attuned as expected? The planning was not detailed enough? Or maybe you were just unlucky because Murphy struck too often?

Whatever it is, a good retrospective can make you better next time.

In the end

Let’s summarise once again. Deadlines bring structure to your projects and help to create a psychologically safe environment for your staff. They create obligations and give everyone involved enough planning security.

This may sound trivial to some people, but just take a look at your company and see whether commitments are really lived.

By the way, deadlines can be used not only at work but also in private life. For example, not to put off your tax return for too long, to regularly clear out your full closet or not to have an article half-finished in your Google Drive for four months. It works … most of the time 🙂



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