Managing Project Deadlines: The Best Tips
The one-off author Douglas Adams said, “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” For a profoundly original talent such as Adams, this was fine, people were prepared to wait, not forever admittedly but at least they cut him some slack. For the less gifted, we are not given such an easy ride. Project deadlines, more importantly, meeting deadlines is vital in the field of management.
For the client, they critically show that you can deliver the promised goods by the promised time. It demonstrates professionalism and organization and it is one of the main reasons that clients return or recommend your business. Meeting deadlines adds to your reputation, it shows reliability and allows the client to depend on you. On the back of your guarantee, they can plan release, marketing, promotion, sales, etc.
Positives and Negatives
For your business, not only will a reputation for meeting deadlines help you grow but deadlines can also help you function. They focus the workforce, provide motivation and a definite direction of travel. Hit deadlines increase morale, team spirit and encourage greater productivity on the whole. Deadlines allow you to plan ahead, structure the business and organize resources.
Meeting deadlines is one of those unusual gifts that is a positive of all sides. That’s the good news. The bad news is that not meeting the deadlines, or even struggling to meet deadlines has a very negative impact, on all involved.
First, we need to analyze why the deadline has been missed, then we can put it right.
Missed Deadline: The reasons
If we know why project deadlines are being missed, then surely we can put it right. Before we discuss it, let’s get realistic for a second. At some point, for some reason, deadlines will be missed – it happens in all fields in all walks of life. Sometimes, even the best managers can’t help the crazy circumstances. The problems really come when project deadlines are missed regularly, this is serious and the consequences for your business can be fatal. So the first question to ask yourself is if anything could have been done to avoid the situation. In the vast, vast majority of projects, the answer is Yes. Reflect on it honestly, analyze and most importantly do something about it.
Acts of God
There really shouldn’t be many of these, they are absolutely exceptional circumstances.
These are the issues with clients or other bureaucracy that you have less control over, not that this is taken into consideration.
- Bureaucracy e.g. waiting for review and approval
- Unclear instructions and guidelines
- Unclear information
- Delays due to lack of client input, or timely feedback
- Scope Creep – client adds additional tasks
Whilst these factors are mainly client-based, your communication and original planning should minimize these hold-ups.
These factors are the main source of concern for you as they reflect directly on your management skills.
- Bad time management – including starting the project late, being lax about the deadlines
- Poor planning – including task breakdown, task allocation, and over-committing
- Weak organization – including prioritization, dealing with problems, distractions, and competing project requirements
- Offering unrealistic promises and deadlines – risks of poor quality product
- Lack of resources – budgets, staff, or technical
These factors often cross over to one another and snowball into problems for your whole business.
Tips for Managing Project Deadlines Before the Start
1. Pre-Planning: Discussions with Clients
The most critical aspect in meeting any project deadline is planning.
Pre-planning – the discussions and negotiations with the client before the project is even agreed. The key to making a good plan is the amount and quality of information you have at hand before you start. As a manager, you need enough information to be able to give an accurate estimate as possible on both time and budget, and the more information you have the better. Whilst this is in part down to the client, it is your job to communicate and ask the questions that will make everything clear. As a professional, you should know all the things you need to know before embarking on the project journey. This is the only way you can even vaguely estimate the project deadline.
You need to know the goals and aims of the project, and some details of the scope required. This way you can plan out the required tasks, estimate the time and effort needed, plan the resources and enter negotiations with a realistic plan.
2. Project Deadline Negotiation
Once you’ve got the information required about the project itself, then you need to negotiate the timeline. Most clients will obviously want to push you to finish, but you must not be pushed into an unrealistic timescale. Impossible timelines are exactly that, so don’t feel pressured to offer them. No matter how much effort you and your team put in, you are unlikely to be able to come up with the goods on time, at least to a satisfactory level.
You should know the resources you will need for the project and the resources you have available. What are the other work projects on the go, and how can you fit this project in. The vast, vast majority of clients want a realistic deadline, explain your thoughts, set out how much work is needed and make it clear that quality takes time. It is more important and better for your reputation to meet a deadline than to over-promise and miss one.
Add in a buffer. You know if you have to work flat out on a project you might hit the target if everything goes according to plan. However, you also know things seldom, go exactly according to plan. For this reason, you should always give yourself and your team a cushion. But don’t let this cushion become the new deadline, aim to beat it.
Set targets to meet by specific times. This works to keep you on track, lets the whole team be aware of the progress being made and helps motivate teams. Large projects can often get caught in a time trap, where nothing seems to be happening and deadlines always seem way of in the distance. So Break projects down into realistic, timed small goals, and mark them off as you fulfill them.
Like goal setting, task lists help you keep track and analyze productivity. You break the project down into a set number of smaller tasks and work your way through them. Daily tasks will show progress and the whole process needs to be flexible, add and change as the project moves forward. These lists give the team members or workers a clear goal for the day, do it- cross it off – move on. You should also have weekly and more long-term activities designed to take you towards completion. These need to be communicated to the stakeholders and highly visible and accessible for all involved.
Goals and tasks need to be prioritized. What should be done first and why. This is often a logical sequence of events, with one thing depending on another but not always. Plan the tasks on a prioritized basis, refresh the list, update it and explain why this is the plan.
Optimizing your project processes
Many projects include repetitive work or routine paperwork. If you have standard operating procedures, templates, checklists etc, then you can cut down on time and make the whole project much more efficient.
Tips for Managing Project Deadlines: During Progress
1. Active Managing
Once the project is in progress and all the planning is set out, that is only part of the manager’s role. Now is not the time to take your foot off the gas. Planning will and should change as you go along, as will prioritization.
A good manager is flexible, you need to be checking on progress frequently and keep your finger on the pulse. Communication with your team is vital. If there is a problem, time is of the essence. Your job is to bring to project to fruition, and the best way to do this is to work with your team and smooth the working processes for them.
- Communicate the tasks and timelines clearly
- Distribute the tasks
- Include the team in planning meetings and progress reports
- Be there for questions and feedback
- Assess progress and assign extra resources if needed
- Emphasis the deadlines
- Regular check-ins
- Give feedback
- Don’t let things drift – be a role model, on top of everything
- Encourage, motivate, praise
- Act – take decisive action when needed
2. Focus – less distraction, fewer interruptions.
One of the biggest reasons that deadlines are not met is that the manager has lost focus on that project. Perhaps you have a number of projects on the go, you’ll certainly have many tasks during your day but you still need to organized time to focus on where this project is, and where it’s going.
Distractions are one of the most common complaints of all managers, and to a certain extent, they come with the territory. But you can minimize or at least control some of these distractions by putting in place worker’s guidelines, and organizing your day better. In a few hours of uninterrupted time, you can get more done than in a full day of constant firefighting.
Ask yourself where your interruptions are coming from? Is it endless meetings, emails and other notifications, team queries, personal distractions? Now do something about reducing them.
Practical solutions could include:
- Turn off notifications for emails, instant messages, text messages, etc. Set aside a specific time for checking them all, answer what are urgent, reply if you need and then turn off the notifications again. It’s the equivalent of a Do Not Disturb sign. This allows you to concentrate on the task at hand, and then later switch to the messages and deal with them in a calmer more rational manner.
- Schedule times when you are available for your team- discourage them from contacting your outside these times by sharing your schedule.
- Only schedule or attend meetings that are necessary.
- Choose the right location to work. It may be easier to focus from home, so why not try it for one day a week. Then organize your activities around what can be better done there.
- Set out guidelines for staff regarding interruptions. This is particularly useful for remote workers. It could include the correct platforms for communications of different types, time schedules, calendars, non-working days, etc.
- Prioritize your day. Do the hardest work at the quietest times.
- Be flexible -if the lunch hour is a time when most people are away from their desks, then that could be a good time to get some work done. Early mornings, weekends and holidays, even nights are all highly productive times – but don’t overdo it.
3. Keep everybody on track
Getting a project completed by the deadline is a team activity, and therefore you need to make the team and keep the team aware of progress. This progress should cover the present status and the expected timelines.
Regular communications with your team, be it daily meetings, emails, messages will make sure that nobody is left in any doubt about what is happening regarding the project a as whole. It is equally important to keep senior managers informed, you may need extra resources or staff.
And let’s not forget the other stakeholders, the clients.
4. Scope – can’t avoid the creep? Add the time
Scope creep is an absolutely nightmare for deadlines. Clients adding to the requirements partway through a project do not necessarily only add the time taken for this addition. It can frequently require further changes to the project as a whole. Just because you’ve established the scope at the outset doesn’t mean it won’t and often does change.
Scope creep can be par for the course, certainly many projects are expected to change as they are being developed. As far as meeting your deadline is concerned scope creep is often the final nail in the coffin. The only thing you can do is adapt, the client is king, but they need to realize loud and clear that this creep is extra and extra takes time. Be upfront, loud and clear with the client about what exactly they are asking and what difficulties this presents, and renegotiated the deadline. This is the time to demonstrate you are fighting for your team.
5. Flexibility within reason
Deadlines will change. Priorities will change. You can’t fight it, so why not embrace it.
You can’t do the impossible, but being flexible and adapting to situations is a strength that is valued by employers and clients alike. It’s a chance to show what you and your team can deliver even under pressure. As such it’s a chance to stand out from the competition.
The biggest difficulty is knowing when you can rise to a challenge and when the client or boss is simply expecting too much for less. Again this is an opportunity to stand your ground, stick up for your team and services, stand your ground as a manager and draw a line in the sand. Clients who keep punching and get what they want will keep pushing again and again.
6. Aim to beat the deadline
The deadline should be seen as the latest time, not as a guideline. Schedule everything to be finished well before the actual deadline, Push your people to get things done early, this leaves you time to check things, and to get everything perfect for delivery.
It also gives you the option, and it is only an option of sending the project early. A client might be especially grateful but be careful. Beatings project deadlines can be seen as a given and quickly become an expectation rather than an exception. If a client has agreed to the deadline it is usually best to meet it rather than beat it.
A team or business with a reputation for meeting the project deadlines is in a strong position to win business and welcome returning business. It is a skills they demonstrates organization and professionalism, it emphasized the importance of punctuality and a high level of service. More than that is also overtly recognizes the value of the client to your business and respect between the two parties. Such as reputation is hard-won and easily lost so it is something to be taken seriously indeed. Planning, before, during and after is the secret of success.