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The Art of Setting Deadlines
Giving your team a hard deadline focuses everyone’s attention on the task at hand. Leaders favor exact deadlines to create clarity and accountability.
When team members know the specific date and time expected for completion of a task or project, they experience a heightened sense of urgency. They buckle down and manage their time efficiently in order not to miss the deadline. No one likes to miss a deadline.
Because deadlines compel action and focus attention, leaders are fond of setting them. In fact, some leaders are all about establishing deadlines for every project and task. They employ and review progress against deadlines as their primary way of driving toward results. Unfortunately, this thinking is flawed.
Because exact deadlines don’t take into account the uncertainties and challenges that may arise during the process, they are often counterproductive. Leaders who are deadline-focused can create disappointment and disillusionment as the hard targets they set are frequently missed. Teams that miss deadlines, of no fault of their own, feel deflated. As the pressure mounts to meet an exact deadline, teams often cut corners and make faulty decisions.
Despite the expected euphoria of crossing the finish line on time, even when deadlines are met, the satisfaction dissipates quickly. Eyes are immediately turned toward the next deadline, often with a moan.
While some outcomes benefit from the discipline exact deadlines create, they are not always the answer. Good leaders only set exact deadlines when they need to. For most projects and tasks, they instead establish inexact deadlines and focus on the milestone goals or steps critical to success.
Focusing on the milestones and goals of a project allows the team to course correct and adapt to unforeseen obstacles that emerge as circumstances change. The inexact deadline highlights the general timeline, while the focus on critical junctures offers a steady sense of progress.
Rather than establishing an exact deadline, good leaders save precision for the milestones and landmarks along the way. As the team achieves these steps, they create momentum and motivation for the journey and do not become flustered as adjustments to evolving circumstances become required.
Progress on tasks is not always a straight line. The best leaders only set exact deadlines when the timing for completion is do or die, or accountability is suspect without it. In all other cases, they suggest a more general timeframe and focus the team’s attention on the goals and mileposts that mark progress.
The best leaders remember that the ultimate inspiration is not the deadline. It is the forward movement of successive achievements that advance the ball forward.