For better or worse (usually worse), much work is about checking boxes. We like tasks. We adore things we can control. Project management tools make us horny. (Well, hopefully not, but in some cases this is unfortunately very true.) If we can hire a new shiny “strategic account manager” to tell us where all the spreadsheets stand, we will do that in a New York cocaine heartbeat.
In the same vein, we love us some deadlines. “This is due on May 3rd” is comforting to us. We now have a target locked and loaded. Let’s go get it.
The problem, though, is this: work got really fucking complicated for a lot of people recently. It’s ‘VUCA.’ There are “stakeholders” everywhere. Just to do your job, you need to check Slack, Asana, G-Drive, and 44 other platforms.
Projects change. Priorities shift. (Often a ton.) And with that, deadlines need to change.
What most managers assume
“Deadlines are sacrosanct. Adherence to them show you’re a good worker bee.”
What most managers do
When patching together a project, they:
- Determine the workflow, often without consulting the people who will actually do the work
- Arbitrarily assign deadlines with no context for what else these people might be working on
- Put those deadlines into a project management platform
- Offer almost no context on how each step/deadline fits in with the bigger picture
- Slap a date on each marker
- Just assume they will receive those materials for review on or around that date
What happens more often than not
- Some “decision-maker” or “stakeholder” completely reverses course on multiple aspects of the project
- Now the context is changed
- That needs to be conveyed
- But the specific tasks have also likely changed
- That needs to be changed and adjusted
A story I legitimately saw once
SVP at a place I used to work was having a meeting. It was some who-gives-a-fuck project that everyone needs to pretend to care about because a SVP is assigning it. You get it.
At the end of the meeting, he starts essentially making up check-in deliverables. He was inventing it out of whole cloth.
“So we need a status deck on May 19th? Julie, you got that?”
Julie has no idea WTF is even being discussed, but because this guy has more power than Julie, she has to nod and say yes.
So now Julie has this 5/19 deadline, but has no idea what it even represents.
What most workers do is this: hope for some context, maybe even ask for it, and if you get nothing back, you assume it’s kinda not that big a deal.
Well, what happened on 5/19 when Julie didn’t attach the deck to the project management tool?
She got TORE INTO — and publicly.
Basically the process unfolded like this:
- Meaningless project
- Arbitrary timelines and dates
- Someone gets publicly shamed the fuck out of
You see how we’re currently calling workplaces “shockingly inhumane?”
A better way to do deadlines
A few ideas:
- Teach managers to communicate better
- They need to talk to their direct reports — and people on other teams working with them
- Ask: “How long will this take to be done well and productively?”
- Also ask: “What else are you working on?”
- Try to figure out if deadlines are impeding creativity
- Provide some context on projects when you load them into a platform
- Realize that the goal is a good project, not a bad project that made it in by a certain date
What else would you add on deadlines?