When did deadlines die?

When did deadlines die?
February 7, 2011 Derek Fournier

This is a Blog about software development. While I feel the process is applicable to many fields, the stories will work best if you pretend you are shipping software (unless, of course, you ARE shipping software, in which case no pretending is necessary.)

I was speaking with a close friend today and we ended up talking about a current problem he and his company were facing. As he recounted the story I couldn’t help but think of how similar the plot was to other recent stories I have heard and experienced.

“The model here seems to be to drive people to hit unrealistic deadlines, blow through them, then simply set new ones.”

I wish this was something I had not lived through. When did it become acceptable to ignore deadlines? When did the status quo become failure?

It made me think back to an early software project I was on. We had a key piece of the product that was designed to help companies with fixing their internal system for the Y2K date switchover. (yea, I know I am dating myself with this reference so feel free to read about this HUGE non-event here if you are too young to have lived through that chaotic time.) Sadly, the software was nowhere near ready to ship from a quality perspective. The team management seemed to be following best practices around setting interim milestones but they broke one of a few cardinal rules of Project Mangement.

They forgot to include quality in their scope.

As anyone who has worked in a QA (Quality Assurance) team can attest, a great project is usually aided significantly (that was grotesque understatement) by making sure the final product does not suck. Making a deadline by simply ignoring all of the problems only allows for a very short ship party. That party is normally followed by a lot of emails discussing your teammates and their looking  into “New Opportunities” elsewhere.

The moral to the story here is that with some work upfront and consultation with the team that actually has to do the work, management teams across the globe can instantly have:

  1. More credibility
  2. Longer careers
  3. More successful launches
  4. Happier teams
  5. Less need for moving boxes and “Farewell” email templates

This process does not have to slow everything down (the perception) nor does it have to be a source of counterproductive strife (more on this concept in future blogs). The steps to implement this cooperative approach are:

  1. Explain why your deadlines matter – It is hard for people to rally around something they don’t understand or support. This is where you have to actually lead. Explain the financial realities or market challenges that you are facing and let your team feel some of the real struggle that every team faces. This is not a weakness. It is a strength. You must trust to be trusted.
  2. Work with the team to validate if the deadline can work – As a friend often said to me, “No matter how hard you try, you can’t make a baby in 4.5 months with two women.” It is better to know that your scope has to be altered and start on that early then it is to get to the week before ship and have to put in a huge delay.
  3. Respect the Iron Triangle – It is not rocket science. You can alter your Scope, your Timeline, or your Resources. That’s it.

You folks know that I love setting big goals but being stupid and expecting miracles on every project is a recipe for disaster.

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