For some teams, deadlines are a science. For others, deadlines are more of an art. For all, deadlines are a daunting yet necessary component of any project. When you’re involved in a creative process that is, by its very essence, free-flowing and often difficult to forecast, deadlines cause frustrating but necessary tensions for small businesses and teams within large companies alike.
As I see it, there are three types of deadlines.
1. Data-Driven Deadlines.
You break an entire project down into concrete steps, each with the specified amount of time that it takes to be completed. Then, when you add up the time for all of the steps, you get an estimate of time required for the project. After taking into account the number of people working on the project, you get an actual target date for completion, otherwise known as a deadline. Of course, if you miscalculated – or altogether miss – a step in the process, then you will miss your deadline. Upon reflection, you will learn why you underestimated the steps. And such knowledge, while painful to learn the hard way, will be valuable in future project planning.
2. Arbitrary Deadlines.
You put your finger in the wind and attempt to feel, based on past experience or a wild guess, when something will be done. Often times, this practice has the sole purpose of just having a milestone in mind. Although common in startups or in projects with client-imposed deadlines, you are relying on a bit of luck. There is disagreement about whether arbitrary deadlines are better than no deadlines. My take is that the mental benefits of a deadline are helpful in pacing the project. Arbitrary deadlines are most effective in an iterative project planning process. You must consistently reassess the deadline as more information reveals itself. Ideally, arbitrary deadlines evolve into data-driven deadlines as more information reveals itself.
3. Bureaucratic (Padded) Deadlines.
When you’re tasked with creating a deadline and reporting it to the higher ups, you have every incentive to “pad” the deadline with extra pockets of time. While it helps to manage expectations and protect your reputation, the practice of padding deadlines will compromise the learning. The causes of miscalculated projects and missed steps may pass unnoticed because of the margin of error providing by the padding. While the higher-ups may be pleased, in actuality your team is robbed of valuable learning.
From this rough analysis we learn a few things.
When you miss a data-driven deadline, it becomes wildly apparent which steps were miscalculated. Such discussions that ensue are teaching moments. With data-driven deadlines you become a learning organization.
Successful project management is NOT just about completing projects. We must learn along the way and strengthen your ability to plan and produce. How you manage deadlines will have a profound effect on your team's efforts for self-improvement. A missed deadline may be a blessing, so long as it is revealing.
This article is based on research by Behance CEO Scott Belsky, whose new book, Making Ideas Happen, is a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think tank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.