Why We Miss Deadlines...and what we can do about it.

Have you ever missed a deadline? Me too...!

One of my favourite authors Douglas Adams was quoted as saying, "I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they race by..."

Joking aside, missed deadlines are not clever, they aren't pretty, they often cost lots of money and create frustration.

And yet examples are everywhere.

  • Currently being constructed, the Berlin Brandenburg Airport was due to open in October 2011. Estimates now say it's more likely to open in 2021 - ten years late. Also by late 2012 expenditures totalled €4.3 billion, nearly twice the originally anticipated figure.

  • In the United Kingdom, the HS2 rail project is currently seven years behind its original deadline.

  • The Sydney Opera House, one of the worlds' most iconic buildings opened 10 years late at enormous extra cost.

...and there are many more.

These are huge projects but on a smaller scale, think of the last time you embarked on re-decorating a room, launching a marketing campaign, or revising for an exam. Indeed when I last managed a major office move - on looking back - my estimates of time were about 100% wrong, literally. Each phase took roughly twice as long as I though it would.

Why does it keep happening...and what can we do?

Some say project overruns are due to people just not working as hard as they could, but this is not the case. Projects take longer than we think they should even when people are working very hard and trying to get the job done.

A phenomenon called the "Planning Fallacy" is the clue, and it basically says that we repeatedly underestimate how long it will take to do something.

Here are four areas that contribute to our estimates being incorrect, and what we can do about them to have a better chance of keeping to our targets.

1) Learn from past projects and experiences

It seems obvious and yet research reveals that we frequently miss deadlines on projects similar to ones we’ve done before. Even though we missed the deadline on the earlier project! We seem to have a blind spot for past failures and approach each new project with a blank planning sheet and the assumption that things will be ok this time...

We need to take the time to look back at earlier experiences and bring lessons forward into the next plan. If we haven’t done a similar project before, then look at something similar or research peers or friends in other environments and see if they can offer advice from their experience. Sounds time consuming? It’ll be worth it if you can prevent potential problems.

2) Beware 'Motivational Reasoning' (being too optimistic)

This is an easy trap to fall into. Especially when we feel we’ll be rewarded for communicating ideal project costing and duration to sponsors of the project. Our customers - both internal bosses and external paying clients - want deliverables as quickly as possible as cheaply as possible. But that can lead us into over-optimistic assumptions. We look for evidence that supports our optimism and tend to ignore factors that might derail our plans.

This can be very tempting when it comes to submitting tenders or contract bids. The need to get the deal can be a huge influence on us submitting unrealistic estimates.

Get real. If you explain your reasoning and evidence you won’t be sucked into a no-win situation when you approach the deadline.

3) Keep the Big Picture in View

Another factor that impacts our ability to meet deadlines is over-focussing on the individual tasks of a project and not the overall picture. Often the factors that join the pieces together are the source of many delays. We tend to take the ideal view of each task and estimate the overall project based on these, forgetting external factors and dependencies between them. Regularly zoom out to take a look at overall progress and plans.

4) Information Sharing - both when you're planning and during execution

Successful planning and execution of a project relies on all the participants having the information they require when they need it. Best of all, teammates can be made aware of information that may not be directly relevant to them, but is helpful for the overall project. For example, if we're renovating an office space and I'm responsible for electrical fixtures and cabling, but I also hear that Mary is having a problem with constructing the desks, I may have a solution or some information that can help her. Similarly if I was to get stuck with a task, she may have information (a contact or an idea) that may help me.

Without a healthy and robust way to continually share information, we both could have continued to work very hard, not knowing that there were ideas and solutions very close by that could have helped.


"Done!" This has to be one of my favourite words!

How's that project going? It's done! Just saying it makes me feel great!!

Commitment to deadlines requires the correct mindset. For you as well as your team. If the project is a one-person endeavour and it's only you that will be responsible for doing it and be accountable for it's completion then it's very easy to let yourself off the hook and complete it some time later...

Don't let missing targets become almost 'acceptable'. Instil the notion in the team that deadlines are deadlines. Have the confidence to ask for verification of estimates and understand exactly how timelines have been constructed and challenge their validity.

If it's a project that your team are doing, set a regular rhythm of checking in with them on progress to get any early warning signs that timelines may be drifting. This is not micromanaging but rather acting like a thermostat for the project to help keep them in the right zone.

Go nail that next project and my best wishes.

Keep scaling.


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