Deadlines Work

Deadlines Work

If you had told me that I'm capable of cycling 50km non-stop, soaked to the skin in torrential rain, eyes burning with sunblock, sweat and ocean spray, in sub-10°C conditions, I would have called you a filthy liar.

Then yesterday happened.

It was meant to be a relatively fine day, with a 40% chance of a shower or two in the afternoon. I was riding the second half of a 150km cycle around Awaji Island.

Shortly after lunch the skies opened and I finished the hardest day of cycling in my life. I was cycling along a sparsely-populated coastline with anaemic public transport. The only way out was through.

In the face of no other option I dug deep, pushed hard and made it to the end.

It was an astounding achievement, by any reasonable measure.

The view from the ferry on the way home after finishing the ride.

Inside, I was shattered.

The first 30km fighting the weather had left me physically tired. The last 20km had been a mental battle. My perception of time was warped. The trip home could have taken 3 hours, it could have been 5 minutes.

I intended to work today, but my aching muscles offer an unpleasant distraction, and mentally I'm scattered. I need time to recover.

People find it easy to empathise with physical suffering, and the need to recover from it. That empathy can be harder to find in a professional setting.

During your career, you will encounter projects that must be delivered to a specific schedule. You will not be in control of this schedule. The only way out is through.

With the right team, this clear constraint, communicated well will galvanise them, enabling them to achieve things they thought impossible.

They dig deep and hit the deadline.

If you're managing this team, you may not see that afterwards, they're shattered.

It is tempting to look at the work your team achieved, reset your expectations of their baseline performance, and start thinking about the next deadline.

This is a mistake.

I had the reserves to push through in extreme circumstances because I had been training sustainably, pushing my limits to improve, but not overtraining. I can't cycle 50km in adverse weather every day. This isn't my new baseline.

In the same way, your team needs time to recover. They need time to recover from the exertion, time to reflect on the experience, and time to ease back into the pace of normal work. This isn't their new baseline.

Deadlines work, but they come at a cost:

  • They come at a cost to the team, who often have to work at an unsustainable pace to meet them;
  • They come at a cost to quality, because teams often need to take shortcuts to meet them; and
  • They come at a cost to your relationship with your team, because they're usually necessary due to failures of management.

If you must set a deadline for your team, there are a few things to consider to make the process less painful for everyone involved:

  • Take ownership for the deadline. Arbitrary deadlines are lethal to team morale, and are a trait of toxic management. Take ownership for why working to a deadline has become necessary, and explain the situation to your team. It is easier for people to find the motivation to dig deep if they understand why the work matters, and how they ended up in this position.
  • Build in recovery time. Your team needs time to recover after working to a deadline. You also need to plan for time to square off all the corners that were cut to meet the target date.
  • Work to prevent future deadlines. Lurching from deadline to deadline is a surefire way to burn your team out. Improve your planning and communication processes to prevent the need to impose future deadlines.

If you've reached this point and you're thinking "This is great and all, but how will I get results from my team without imposing deadlines?" you've got a bigger problem to solve.

If believe your team isn't delivering rapidly enough without coercion, you've got a clear misalignment in values and perception with your team.

You need to align your and their beliefs about what the current state of your project is, and what's important to the business, rather than strong-arming them into unsustainable work practices.

This process may uncover gaps in your own knowledge, so it's important to approach this conversation with an open mind and a genuine desire to understand.

Ensuring your team follows sustainable work practices and keeping their workload manageable builds trust.

Trust enables you to ask your team to dig deep when it really matters.

You're responsible for giving them the space to decompress when the fires are out, and for planning more thoroughly next time.

Deadlines work, but keep them behind glass, only broken in case of emergency.