Facebook Twitter

Companies turning to false deadlines to spur action

But the ploy may backfire, resulting in loss of urgency and decline in worker productivity

SHARE Companies turning to false deadlines to spur action

In many offices, setting false deadlines has became as chronic as breaking them.

Molecular biologist Christine Martens has had more than her share of deadlines set to an artificially early date. One of her former bosses set a do-or-die deadline of Thursday afternoon for a research summary report. After she met the deadline, she discovered he had taken off both Friday and the following Monday. "Nobody took his deadlines seriously after that," she says.

Another boss, anticipating lateness, routinely moved all deadlines up. "If there are no consequences to being late — because you aren't really late, because the deadline wasn't real — you'll be late again next time," Martens says. Making matters worse, that boss made everyone use project timeline software, a graphical representation of a project's progress. Martens updated it weekly but says, "Wasting time on timeline software didn't seem very productive to me, especially if all I had to do was move the little bars around to be in compliance again."

False deadlines are just that: moving little bars around. There are certainly legitimate reasons to impose early deadlines. Some people have never met one they didn't bust, for example. And certain office archetypes, such as people whose work won't turn out right until the ninth iteration, can invite early deadlines that aren't necessarily false but seem that way.

Sometimes the difficulty of predicting work flow can make deadlines seem earlier in retrospect than they needed to be. "There are only two types of estimates: lucky and lousy," says Jim Johnson, chairman of Standish Group, a research advisory firm specializing in project measurement. His firm has found that in 2006, the North American software industry spent $86 billion on software requirements that were never used. "People do impose things that are not needed," he says. Much of that isn't necessarily a false deadline — just a costly failure.

But like false fire alarms, high-priority e-mails (!) and "Urgent" voice mails, false deadlines can dilute a sense of urgency, making everything seem like a top priority so nothing really is. "Over and over again, people say that urgencies crowd out the important stuff on a daily basis," says time-management consultant Julie Morgenstern. "You need an intervention because they can wreak havoc on an organization."

Jason Taub, vice president of sales for a point-of-purchase display company, says he just assumes people set their deadlines at least a day early for him. Consequently, "If I'm a day or two late, I'm still on time," he says. He often tries to calibrate his clients' deadlines, believing there is always a cushion built into them. But if a client says there isn't any play, he will meet the deadline and try not to believe it is false, even if it is. Says Taub: "It's perhaps a state of Zen or an advanced form of cynicism."

David Davis once worked in the Pentagon, which he says was "false-deadline heaven." He argues that you can learn a lot if you question whether a deadline is hard and fast, but you also take a risk. "If you ask someone to provide the 'real' deadline and they come back with the same original date, you have probably established a reputation as someone who needs to be 'managed' in order to get your response in on time," he says.

The most nettlesome of false deadlines are those imposed by a manager whose next breath appears to depend on the deadline being met but who, once it has been, behaves as though the work was less important than the office's NCAA betting pool.

But it isn't entirely the boss's fault. This era of high-velocity communications doesn't grant the breathing space that the sluggish postal service once did, and interruptions can easily obliterate daily agendas. That means most managers can control a staffer's schedule better than they can control their own.

There also is comfort for managers and clients in having the option to do work, which can be better than doing it. In addition, "the early collection process gives them the impression they're actively engaged in whatever it is they're responsible for without actually engaging," says Murray Berkowitz, the president of an ad-sales firm.

Some clients ask Berkowitz to get data "in their hands in 24 hours" even though, he later learns, they don't need it for a month. "How can you lean forward in the saddle when nothing ever happens?" he asks. "We often go into slow motion when we discover we are being buffaloed. What's the point of going crazy when we know we've got more time to do this?"

Unfortunately, the justification for early deadlines — better work product — can actually result in the opposite. Barton Evans, a former executive at an analytical-instruments maker, says a top executive would ask for a product in 12 months, quietly expecting he would get it in 18. Evans says the time constraint meant engineers would start by identifying what couldn't be included in the product, rather than what could.