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In my previous blog, “Project without a Deadline does not complete”; we looked at the importance of starting a project with an end date in mind. In this blog, we are going to explore this subject of deadlines further and see how to make the deadlines effective. A deadline is a double-edged sword. It can motivate the teams and help them achieve a pinnacle of success or it can demotivate the teams and lead them to failure. Leaders need to navigate skillfully to ensure that deadlines cause a positive impact and lead to success.

You would remember that when the Government of India announced demonetization of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 banknotes in November 2016, banks had a tough time dealing with the situation that ensued. While at the front end, they were dealing with customers wanting to exchange old notes, at the back end, they also had to provide various new reports to the Government. Their IT systems did not have these reports before and they had to create these reports on the fly. Banks and their IT staff did a commendable job in creating these new reports at a short notice with stringent deadlines. They met this unprecedented challenge successfully. How did they manage it? What factors helped them to achieve this?

Firstly, the agile principle of business and IT people working together as one cohesive team was very well implemented. Business people were fully involved in software development, explained the requirements, tested the software, and ensured that correct reports were produced on time.  Secondly and more importantly, the agile principle of empowering the motivated team fully also was on display. An integrated team of business and IT people were fully focused on delivering what was asked for. When we have motivated teams, fully owning the outcome, success is the natural result. This aspect of team owning the outcome can work wonders and it is for leaders to promote that ownership.

So, the key differentiator in meeting the deadline is that the deadline has to be owned by the team. It may be proposed (not imposed) by the leader but it must be wholeheartedly accepted and owned by the team. If the team does not own the deadline, it will definitely lead to compromises. That leads us to seek an answer to the question – what makes the teams own the deadline?.

When a team perceives that the deadline is being imposed on them and it is unfair, they will not own it. There will be resistance. The team may work towards the deadline but the winning spirit that creates spectacular success and celebration will be missing. This will lead to compromised delivery or total failure.

The best way to set the deadline is to let the team set the deadline themselves. Leaders may explain various factors that impact the organization such as the need to be the first mover, the need to catch up with the competition which is racing ahead, the need to start the revenue generation, the need to urgently address a serious problem/issue, the need to take advantage of an opportunity that is becoming available, the consequences of not meeting the regulatory requirements on time, etc. and let the team set the deadline. When the team understands why they are doing what they are doing and the importance of delivering it by a particular date, they will be truly committed to the deadline and the successful outcome. In this case, the deadline is not something imposed by the boss, but something that is driven and owned by the team. Drive to meet the deadline is internal and not external

One word of caution – deadlines must be realistic. We definitely do not advise the team to be burnt out chasing a deadline. In some instances, there could be exceptions to this but it is advisable to let the teams run at a pace that could be sustained in an ongoing manner.

At times, there could be a small gap between what needs to be achieved and what could be achieved in the given time by a particular team.  In such situations, leaders tend to apply pressure and force the team to plug the gap. This could be counterproductive, as the team may circumvent some process to meet the demand and natural consequence of this would be a fall in quality. Usually, it is better to let the team own the problem and devise some solution.  As general guidance, if anything is to be compromised let scope be compromised but not the quality. Leaders may step in to help with prioritization of the work items.

To summarize, for deadlines to be effective, they need to be owned by the teams, and rather than forcing the deadlines, leaders need to work with the teams to make them own the deadlines.

So far, our discussion has been around deadlines for projects. We will extend it to the program and portfolio levels in the next blog.

Milind Rumade