Deadlines are not Agile! Are they?



Rage against deadlines

How often have you found yourself set an ‘impossible deadline’ and been left asking: “Why the heck am I having to break my neck to hit it? Where did it come from? Who came up with the date?”

Pretty often, huh? I know it’s happened to me a lot. I regularly see people getting very angry about being set a deadline. The typical response is to froth at the mouth and curse “the management”.

What makes a deadline so bad?

Having a deadline imposed upon you can be tremendously disempowering. Where once you felt you had control to go about your work in a certain way, suddenly this control gets taken over and you are left just doing stuff with little or no input or choice.

Often, we are not sure about the reason for a deadline or perhaps the justification is pretty poor. Perhaps the consequences of not hitting the deadline don’t appear particularly important, or perhaps the desired outcome is not altogether clear. Instead of galvanising everyone and spurring them into action, all of this just fuels confusion and frustration.

This is very demoralising. Worse still, as time gets closer and closer, it may seem inevitable that you won’t make the deadline, but you might still be getting told that you still have to do it no matter what.

All of this turns our work life into one long, miserable, pointless chore!


Irving Berlin: “Life is 10 percent what you make it and 90 percent how you take it.”

But recently I’ve been thinking: there has to be a way to better understand all of this. After all, isn’t having to work with deadlines in some form or another something that is inevitable in a fast-paced, growing, innovative company? How can I understand deadlines in a different way and tap into the benefits?

As Irving Berlin said: “Life is 10 percent what you make it and 90 percent how you take it.” So let’s look at this from another perspective.

Without deadlines I would do nothing!!

Homer do nothing

Would anyone ever actually do anything without having a deadline of some kind? Without some kind of time limit, be it self-imposed, externally-imposed, real or artificial, why wouldn’t we just procrastinate forever?

Tim Urban, co-founder of and a self-confessed “master procrastinator”, believes we’re all procrastinators until we have a compelling and imminent deadline. It’s just that some people are better at creating compelling and imminent deadlines for themselves than others (see video at the end of this post).

I can relate to this. Without some reason to do something now rather than later, I might just amble through life without a clear focus and maybe never do things I really should have done, like actually unpack the Ikea shelves I bought and put them together in order to help organise my child-created chaos at home.

And think about the concept of a bucket list, which is essentially creating in yourself a sense of urgency to do something before you die!

So a deadline, done effectively, will motivate you move to get a task done, when the lack of a deadline would have led to procrastination and meant that task hanging around unfinished along with my Ikea shelves… and actually finishing this blog 🙂

What makes an effective deadline?


Effective deadlines are all around us. In a Hackathon, we happily embrace the challenge of a strict time limit on producing something of value. We don’t fret about the unrealistic timelines imposed on us, we accept the challenge and enjoy it!  Similarly, we have sprints and other timeboxes where the timebox itself acts as the litmus paper for our creativity. We don’t have an aversion to these timeboxed activities and we stop thinking about a dreaded ‘deadline’.  Instead the feelings that are conjured up in us are different.

In these examples, we feel we have creative control over the interpretation of what needs to be done. Control is key because, we are ‘allowed’ to ask ourselves, what can I do in the time I have, this results in it feeling more like a challenge rather than a chore.  With that freedom we feel compelled to make maximum use of the resources and time given to achieve the goal.

I have come up with a list which I think are the key elements (which are in common with the above), that make an effective deadline. Just for fun, each item begins with a “C”:

  • COMPELLING: The outcome needs to be a compelling: I must be psychologically shifted into a mindset where I think: I’ve got to do this now.
  • CAUSE: There must be a cause to strive for – a purpose – to achieve something significant, enjoyable and challenging.
  • CONSEQUENCE: Perhaps if this task doesn’t get done now, there will be some kind of unpleasant consequence.  For example, if I don’t construct those shelves today, then the unpacked equipment, along with all the mess, will be a huge embarrassment when my in-laws arrive for dinner tonight. Or, if we don’t deliver this feature by the end of the month then the company will stop trading. You could be anywhere on this scale from minor negative consequence to apocalyptic.
  • CLEAR: A clear goal – I must know what the outcome needs to be for me to be able to say that the task has been done.

But what do I do with an ineffective deadline?

So your question probably is… Yep, I understand if the deadline is good, Happy days… But what do I do if the deadline falls into the demoralisation category?

Firstly, we should not automatically respond to a deadline with dismay.  It is important to understand the intent behind a deadline and to ask the questions that will help you find the effective qualities inherent in the deadline.

Secondly, we need to remember that perception is everything.  If meaning and purpose are lacking in a deadline, try fashioning the intent behind a deadline into a challenge. Taking Irving Berlin’s lead: life is 90% how you take it!


Perception is everything


You may also be interested in watching:

TED: Tim Urban – Inside the mind of a master procrastinator

One thought on “Deadlines are not Agile! Are they?

  1. Good stuff Mem. I like the Big ‘C’s. Deadlines are necessary in the commercial world. We have to have pages up for seat sales to align with marketing campaigns etc. It’s the responsibility of the leadership to make sure that the teams have clarity around the ‘C’s. Without this, you’re quite right – it’s hugely demoralising, and the deadline will often be missed, and everyone loses.

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