Political Promises and Project Management
This past summer, we had a federal election here in Canada. If you weren’t following along, don’t worry – neither was I. Even so, one story in particular caught my attention: during his campaign, Justin Trudeau (AKA the guy who won) announced that he would bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year. Shortly after getting elected, he promptly broke that promise and reset the deadline to February 29, 2016.

But was it actually a “promise” or just an optimistic target? It doesn’t really matter, I guess. In the world of politics, pretty much anything you say in public instantly becomes a written-in-stone commitment. Apolitically speaking, it’s a bit silly and unfair. But hold on, now. Don’t we do the same kind of thing in project management all the time?

I know I’ve been guilty of it. I once had a co-worker who consistently refused to give me estimated completion dates. When asked why, he replied, “If I give you a date, even if it’s only 50% certain, you will enter it into a Gantt chart and it becomes a 100% commitment that you will hold me to.” Oops.

OK then – so what’s the difference between a deadline and an estimated target date? Let’s define each:

Deadlines vs. Targets
I once gave a presentation to my team about the origin of the word deadlines. I told them that in prison camps during the American Civil War, there were lines drawn on the ground. If you crossed outside of these lines, you were shot. Dead. Lines. (Aside: this turned out to not be a great motivator at all.)

Deadlines are real and meaningful and carry serious implications. They are usually set to coincide with some external factor such as a year end or campaign launch. If missing a deadline doesn’t result in someone yelling and/or crying, it’s probably not a true deadline.

By contrast, a target date is your best estimate on when a project will be completed. It’s derived from a carefully estimated schedule: add up the estimated task durations, account for resourcing, etc., and voila: the target date.

Of course, as a project manager, you have some leeway in how you set this date. You can build in some buffer to be safe, or you could shorten it to add a little excitement (let’s call it “motivation”) to your project.

Be careful there, though. As in politics, once you make this date known, it magically morphs into something more concrete. It gets written into contracts, launch parties are planned, resources get released to other projects, etc. Whoops – now you have a deadline. Hopefully you were really careful with that estimating part.

When Targets Don’t Match Deadlines
So what happens when the target date and the deadline don’t match up? If the target date you calculated is unacceptable, you have a number of solutions and strategies to choose between:

  1. Probably the most common choice: just be late. How late? There’s some simple math to figure it out: take the number of days to the target date and subtract the number of days to the deadline date. (Note that no one wants to hear this for some reason.)
  2. Also popular, but probably worse option is to compromise quality (i.e., it will suck). This is going to cost someone somewhere, though – guaranteed.
  3. Draw upon the client’s unlimited budget and add some more people to the project, even though there’s a pretty good chance it won’t actually help. (The client doesn’t have an unlimited budget? What?)
  4. Perform some project management wizardry, such as fast-tracking or rapid prototyping. Or, if you don’t have mad PM skillz, just make everyone work longer hours. They love that.
  5. Modify the scope, either by cutting out some deliverables entirely or moving some to a later phase of the project, even if that means creating a new phase. (Unlike all the previous options, I don’t have a sarcastic rejoinder for this one. It’s legit.)
  6. Or – here’s an idea – change the deadline to match the target date. This is clearly the best option, but really only works well if you can do it early. The closer you get to that deadline, the less likely it gets to being accepted.

Here’s the bottom line: don’t allow any confusion. Be very clear about what true deadlines exist for your project, what your target date is, and highlight any discrepancies. If things aren’t lining up, talk about it as early as possible and use the above list to come up with a plan to deal with it, starting from the bottom up.

Contributors:

Carson has been doing the digital project management thing for about a decade now, and is currently consulting with various digital agencies to help them develop better PM processes. After hours, Carson plays hockey, hangs out with his family, and cleans up after his fat chihuahua that poops in the house on purpose—all of which involve a lot of yelling.

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