Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Of meeting or extending deadlines

The earlier definition of the word "deadline" was in relation to a prison.  In that context, a deadline was a boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards.  Crossing the deadline was an invitation to death and the prisoner was well advised to stay within that boundary line to stay alive.  Death could not be prevented by staying within that boundary; death is a certainty of life.  Though death could not defeated by staying within the deadline, its coming could be ensured in due course without an invitation for early arrival.

Modern definition of deadline has entirely changed.  It is the time by which something must be finished or submitted.  It is the latest time for finishing something, usually an assigned task.  Not finishing the task before the deadline is considered as an indication of inefficiency or of being not serious about achieving the assigned task.  When life was proceeding at its own leisurely pace, things were done as and when they were actually completed and not when they were expected to be completed. In individual-centric tasks deadlines may not assume as much importance as work to be accomplished by teams.  This becomes all the more critical when the achievement of deadlines is linked to performance of organizations, like meeting customer expectations or reaching a sales target.  Unless all members of the team work with single-minded dedication, meeting the prescribed deadline may not be possible.

There are people who question the very rationale of having deadlines.  They may argue in favor of "natural way" of doing things and allowing issues to take their own course.  They may suggest that deadlines are not always necessary and it brings more mental pressure and blood pressure than working with pleasure.  But experience has taught us that adopting an attitude of "allowing natural way of doing things" often results in matters drifting and reaching nowhere.  However, there is a need to fix a deadline after evaluating the resources and reasonable possibilities.  Excellent teamwork can do wonders and the sum total of team's capabilities may exceed the arithmetic aggregate of individual capacities.  Fixing a realistic deadline provides a better chance of achieving it.  A reasonable deadline provides energy and enthusiasm to start the assigned work with the confidence of achieving it before the expected date.  Artificial deadlines tend to make the very effort of traveling the path laborious and painful.  A deadline arrived at after free exchange of views of the members of the team has a higher chance of being met than those imposed from above. Organizations have to often fix a deadline first and work backwards to plan and mobilize resources.  This is the reality of the given situation at times and finding additional resources to meet deadlines in the circumstances becomes necessary.

Attitude of different members in a given group to achieve deadlines makes an interesting study.  Some always believe that deadlines are there only to be extended automatically. They neither contribute their share of efforts nor allow others to proceed systematically. They act as an impediment in the progress of others as overall progress is impacted by individual lethargy.  Periodical review of the progress of the task becomes necessary in such situations and blocks have to be ironed out firmly in the interest of the team.  There are bound to be some weak members in the team.  The issue is not whether they are weak, but one of whether they are willing.  It then becomes the responsibility of the leadership to provide support to the weak but willing and carry them along.

There is also an issue about relevance of deadlines in creative assignments.  Creativity does not yield to deadlines.  There is a certain minimum time before creativity incubates and emerges.  But a very creative production which arrives after the time limit for its utility is past is also a waste.  Thus there is a need for achieving a golden mean between creative brilliance and practical schedule for delivery.

There are some who always achieve the deadline and there are others who never achieve it.  For the achievers, it is a sacred duty.  For the non-achievers, well, it is a way of life.  They often stay that way because they are able to get away with such attitude.  What should be done with such weak links in the chain?  Their continuance in the team is to be evaluated and suitable decision taken without hesitation.  Just as rewarding performance is important, punishing non-performance is also necessary.  Never leave out the failing man and do not put unnecessary extra burden on the efficient horse! Teams drift because performers are disheartened by watching non-performers get away easily. Leadership should also dispassionately watch individual performance in team tasks and ensure that true performers do not go unrewarded just because they are shy of blowing their own trumpets.

What should a member of the team do when he feels that he cannot deliver his share of output before the deadline?  It is advisable to frankly say so, with valid reasons, before accepting the assigned task.  This will provide the team leader to choose an alternate player or press additional resources to reach the goal.

Not meeting deadlines lead to time overruns.  Time overruns lead to cost overruns.  Cost overruns threaten viability of the projects and very survival of organizations.  There was an excellent cartoon by R K Laxman in which a senior officer is explaining about a project to a minister in a dilapidated project site.  The explanation goes something like this: "Finishing this project costs a big sum of money.  Abandoning the project will result in wastage of even bigger sum of money already invested.  We are, therefore, implementing it at a slow pace to keep the losses at a minimum".  Projects that do not meet deadlines probably belong to this category!


  1. Frankly, till the time of reading your piece I was not aware of the original meaning of "deadline". The article is very thought provoking; it teaches a wonderful management lesson even as the narration is very simple and light hearted. The icing on the cake is R K Laxman's cartoon. Great!

  2. Though I had read this already in your blog, still it made a very interesting reading again. Its more relevant today than it was a few months back.
    Thanks again

  3. That I why perhaps nowadays the term time line is used!! TVS

  4. Enjoyed reading your blog. Great work! Look forward to reading more from you.

  5. Well brought out. The reference to Golden Mean is very nice.