Why your team is missing deadlines

hourglass, missing deadlines

Most of us work to deadlines at least some of the time. Deadlines are a common source of stress for leaders and teams. So much so, that there is often a flurry of work close to a deadline to avoid being late. In the hustle and bustle of work, some missed deadlines even simply “sneak up on us”.

Why do we need deadlines?

When missing deadlines becomes a habit for your team, you have a problem. Deadlines play a useful role in teams because they give people something to aim for. Deadlines also force people to think about the work involved in a task.

Without goals or targets, teams can drift endlessly from week to week, without any urgency. Deadlines also force you to prioritise your effort. If something is due tomorrow, it should take precedence over a job happening next month.

Deadlines punctuate the dullness that is the working week. Although it sometimes feels nice to not have to rush towards a goal and to take your time, it can also feel pointless. If you don’t have a deadline for a task, it can feel like nobody cares about your work. For some people (including myself), this can have a deflating effect as you sit and think “Why am I even doing this?”.

Why your team is missing deadlines

There are many teams out there that are in the habit of missing deadlines. I’ve seen them, I’ve led a few of them and tried to improve them. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. If your team has developed bad habits with regard to deadlines, it’s usually not because they are all useless. When your team is consistently missing deadlines, it is often due to the context they’re working in and the culture of the team, rather than being all to do with their ability.

Your team is missing deadlines because there is no real pressure

If you’re a reasonable leader who tries not to run your team members into the ground, then you probably don’t yell and scream at them too often. For deadlines to be effective, there needs to be some sort of pressure.

I find that usually the best type of pressure comes from external to the team. If somebody important from outside your team is demanding a deadline be met, it can carry more weight than if only the team itself cares. If the team leader sets the deadline and is the sole source of pressure to achieve it, the deadline can seem less important.

On the other hand, if the Minister for Silly Walks is meeting with the Prime Minister on Tuesday and your team needs to prepare the presentation, this external pressure helps entice people to work hard to meet it.

Your team is missing deadlines because they are arbitrary

If you just make up deadlines arbitrarily, your team will get into the habit of missing them. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually they will learn that your deadline doesn’t really matter.

When there is no real reason for a deadline, other than to have a goal to aim for, it will become obvious that the hitting the deadline isn’t that important.

But wait, you’re the boss. Shouldn’t your team just do what you say and work really hard to achieve the goal you have set? Maybe. The problem occurs when even *you* know that missing the deadline won’t have any real impact. It’s hard to push a team to work hard when there is no real reason to do so.

It becomes obvious that a deadline is arbitrary when there are no consequences for missing it. When the deadline comes and goes and all that happens is the due date is shifted back to next week or next month, there is a clear signal that the deadline is just for show.

Your team is missing deadlines because they are unrealistic

Unrealistic deadlines are not motivating. It may be good to set stretch goals to push your team, but stretch goals are designed to just be a little bit hard, not completely ridiculous.

Unrealistic deadlines arise for several reasons:

  • You can’t say no. If you say “Yes” to your own boss regardless of the ridiculous task she throws at your team, then you’re likely to commit to an unrealistic deadline.
  • There is no planning: How many times have you heard that it’s a “finger in the air” estimate? If you just pick a date out of thin air with no planning as to how to work will be done, it’s just sheer luck if you manage to hit the deadline. Some teams will work themselves ragged to get the work done anyway. But do you really want your team burning out because you have set a ridiculous timeframe?
  • You aren’t collaborating: Frustration often arises when a schedule is determined without any collaboration. If you make up the deadline without talking to the people who actually need to do the work, it’s likely to be nothing more than a guess.

When a team is facing an unrealistic deadline, it’s rare that they strive hard to meet it. Sure they’ll work hard, but in the back of their mind, they know that the deadline is probably not achievable. Getting your team to work really hard to achieve something when they don’t really believe it is extremely difficult.

“You want me to work on the weekend, when we’ll never hit that deadline anyway? How about I just take the weekend off and come back refreshed instead?”

Deadlines are valuable tools for teams. But missing deadlines consistently can cause teams to lose confidence and begin to treat them with less respect. Once a team loses respect for deadlines, it’s a hard task to get them to try to achieve them.

To stop missing deadlines continuously, you need to have the right structure in place. You need some sort of real pressure, to create a real deadline that is realistically achievable.

Unless you have these three components in place, your team are going to develop an unhealthy disrespect for deadlines. In turn, you’ll have difficulty planning activities because you’ll never quite know when they are going to be complete!

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