A steady hand and a fallback plan can keep even
best-laid plans from veering too far off course.
Deadlines can paralyze, but it’s worth taking the time to analyze the situation. Use these questions to think through the issue:
- Am I facing a deadline or a target? A deadline is fixed, and implies some degree of urgency. Perhaps it carries a contractual or budgetary promise. A target, on the other hand, is a goal—important perhaps, and definitely worth reaching, but not necessarily as vital as a deadline.
- Is my deadline financial or political in nature? Some deadlines are dictated by preferences, relationships or favors.
If you have a real deadline, does it portend financial implications? Or is it based on personal or professional issues? How you handle the dead-on deadline may depend on
- What are the risks of a missed deadline? Analyze and quantify them. Estimate the possible short- and long-term dollar losses.
- What’s my fallback position? If you don’t meet the deadline, do you get a second chance sometime later? Can you salvage important parts of the project anyway?
- What critical new resources could I bring to bear on the deadline? For example, can you bring in extra equipment, people or dollars to whatever project you’re working on? And if so, will the costs help leverage on-time completion?
- Can I modify the schedule? Complex projects run on schedules. Often, some part of the pre-deadline schedule can be adjusted to free up time. Before throwing in the towel or making backup plans, ask whether you might have the ability to adjust some part of the project schedule.
- Can I defer or transfer parts of my project? If you have other projects on the horizon, can you turn some activities over to a future project? Can some of your outcomes be met by another individual?
- What is my gut telling me? Don’t laugh. Your “gut file” is the sum of what your knowledge, experience and intuition tells you about your incomplete project, the risks of missing a deadline, and the probability that you just might pull it off. Your gut file may not be written down anywhere, but it’s real. Consult it as you’re assessing your options.
Plan, plan, plan
Once you understand the nature of the deadline and the options you face, you can figure out what to do. And whatever the deadline, you almost always have options:
- Manage yourself. Deadlines, especially potentially missed deadlines, cause stress. But adopt a thoughtful attitude to what’s coming up, consult with others, and resolve to make the most of the situation, and you’ll set yourself up for the best outcome.
- Don’t give in to arbitrary solutions.It’s easy to succumb to unrealistic expectations, or even denial. Don’t.
- Manage others. Who else is involved in the deadline? Employees? Colleagues? An ad-hoc project team? Fellow members? Ask yourself what more you can expect of them, and how you can motivate them to beat the deadline.
- Involve others. After you identify the folks involved in the deadline, engage them. Ask for advice. Ask for their help. And offer specific suggestions on what each partner can do to make the right things happen.
- Acknowledge the problems. Maybe you built the project plan incorrectly. Maybe you disregarded someone’s advice when you first headed out toward the deadline. Whatever the problem, be upfront about it, and you’ll earn the respect—and perhaps the support—of the people around you.
- Identify the constraints—and figure out how to battle them. So what’s holding up the project? By now, you should be able to answer that question. And it’s time to generate mini-plans to attack each obstacle.
- Delegate what you can. If you can “partition” pieces of the deadline to employees, colleagues or vendors, now is the time to do it. Other folks have capabilities and resources you might not have. If you can use them at modest cost, you might still be able to pull off that deadline.
- Revisit your schedule. Can you adjust your schedule? Shift assignments? Give new responsibilities to others? Review your original schedule, and adjust where you can. The result: You might find yourself closer to the deadline than you think.
- Measure. As you approach your deadline, keep track of progress. Ask yourself: What are the metrics? How do you know you’re making progress? Build yourself a data chart and track what’s happening day by day, or hour by hour. Once you build a tracking mechanism you build yourself time to make corrections.
By now, you know your options and capabilities. While you may not have unlimited flexibility, acting—and acting fast—can help move a stalled project toward completion.
- Ask, cajole, demand. Whatever your project, its completion probably depends on other people. Whenever you notice a step lagging, or a task not being completed, contact the person responsible and push for movement.
- Communicate proactively. Who else has a stake in the outcome of your project? Customers? Colleagues? Keep them abreast of what’s going on, especially if they would be negatively affected by a completion delay. Complete and accurate communication won’t solve the deadline problem, but it will help you maintain important relationships—and maybe even pave the way for successful projects in the future.