Deadline Setting is a Team Sport

Urgent!  Top Priority!  A.S.A.P. These are the deadlines routinely issued today by superiors, customers and clients.  Whether issued in the Subject line of an e-mail, the closing minutes of a meeting or via a voice mail, these mandates suggest that all current activity must stop immediately and that full attention be directed the new assignment.

The problem with this type of deadline setting is that it has become common place and is attached to all manner of work delegation – both urgent and … well … less than urgent (to be polite).   The quandaries this behavior creates are numerous:

  • If I have five “Urgents” on my to-do list, which one do I do first?
  • Why is an assignment recipient being asked to shoulder the responsibility of gleaning the true deadline in play on any particular piece of work?
  • Isn’t deadline setting a managerial responsibility most logically expected of the assignment giver?
  • And, if the assignment giver is just shoving the assignment downstream in the same manner it was received from above, doesn’t this notion of who’s responsibility it is to determine an actual due date and time even more pressing?

Lazy Deadlining

Lazy Deadlining is what it is.  Work givers using these deadlines at all levels have simply abdicated their responsibility to determine when a specific piece of work must actually be accomplished.

My case for this position is this:  Urgent! Top Priority! A.S.A.P. do not exist on any calendar that I’ve ever seen.  Therefore, they are meaningless when it comes to the effective workflow management.  Moreover, it is this notion of “management” that directs my attention to the giver of work when seeking the culprit.  The responsibility for clear communication nests within the authority to give work.  It is not the responsibility of the recipient to drive a deadline or magically guess at that deadline is (arguments about “managing up” aside).
But I’m just taking orders too! This is often the position taken by those accused of lazy deadlining.  This translates to, “I have no control over my world and I prefer it that way.”  Hogwash.  No one likes feeling out of control or constantly operating in a reactionary mode.  It’s unsettling, stressful, and, more to the point here, inefficient.

The Inefficiency of Lazy Deadlining

I’m a productivity “expert.”  At least that’s what my web site says.  So I approach workflow management issues primarily from an effectiveness (better) and efficiency (faster, cheaper) perspective.  And the problem with Urgent! Top Priority! A.S.A.P. is that it breaks all the rules that result in better, faster, cheaper.  Here are three reasons why:

  • Ping Ponging. Whenever these mandates come down, people DO stop whatever they were doing and jump onto the new task.  This can also be called an interruption and we’ve all heard the statistic that it can take up to 20 minutes to get back on track following an interruption.  And, before you jump on me about how important this task is, remember that these edicts are being routinely issued throughout the day, causing delegates to Ping Pong from one conflagration to the next resulting in numerous unnecessary interruptions each day.  This is neither effective nor efficient.
  • Urgency Begets Rushing. When everything must be done right now people rush.  Rushing results in lots and lots of mistakes.  The best thing that can happen when you start making these mistakes is that the work gets to be redone.  The worst thing that can happen is that the mistake-riddled end result is delivered to the giver (think: Client or Customer) resulting in a very bad client/customer experience.
  • Chicken Little Effect. A long term organizational problem also results from Lazy Deadlining – the loss of urgency when urgency is truly needed.  This happens when an assignment is rushed back to the giver only to linger for days or weeks on the giver’s desk.  We can only claim the sky is falling so many times before people stop looking up.  This is a loss of organizational effectiveness at a fundamental level.

Clarity:  The Simple Fix

Ironically, fixing this problem is very simple – simply provide specific dates and times (where possible) for all work assignments given.  Moreover, for those receiving work that does not contain specific date/time deadlines, simply ask for clarification. (Note, this need to request clarification applies to those who are passing work down the chain.  This is, if it’s unclear when received, don’t abdicate responsibility, seek clarity.)

For work givers, the solution is just as easy as it sounds – put a date and time on all work delegated.

For work receivers, the solution is to diplomatically seek a specific date/time on every piece of work you receive.  For example, “Thanks for the opportunity to work on this project.  In order to ensure I produce a professional the result in a timely manner, do you know if there is a specific date/time this must be done?”  Or, “I’m looking forward to working on this.  You’ve given several other high urgency projects this week, so can we sit down for a minute and line up the dates/times each is due?”  Or, if you’re talking to a client, try this, “We’ll get on this right away.  Can you give me some idea of what’s driving the urgency on this matter?”

The end game is to achieve clarity so that everyone’s expectations are met.  Remember, A.S.A.P. means something very different to me (the recipient) than to you (the giver) if I’m leaving at noon on my long-overdue two-week vacation.

Specific Application

There are several instances where Lazy Deadlining can be stopped in its tracks:

  • E-mail. If an assignment is being delegated in e-mail, insert a specific date and time the work is due right in the Subject line of the e-mail.  Not only does it force the work giver to think about the deadline in the process of delegating, it’s also more easily read and found in the undoubtedly full Inbox of the recipient.
  • Voice Mail. Similarly, communicating the deadline when first leaving work in voice mail allows both the giver and receiver to immediately determine how to manage this particular effort as it relates to the other outstanding tasks.
  • Group/Individual Meetings. Before the conclusion of one-on-one meetings or group/team meetings, the meeting leader can take a minute to confirm all decisions made during the meeting, identify next steps, those responsible for the next steps, and the deadlines for completion or updates on the next steps.  Thus, everyone has an opportunity to weigh in on the deadline setting effort and they leave the meeting with a clear understanding of the expectations placed on them.

Work Doesn’t Happen in Vacuum

This may be stating the obvious, but work is never assigned in a vacuum.  Both the giver and receiver have a number of things on their minds and on their task lists whenever work is passed up and down the chain of command.  Issuing deadlines like Urgent! Top Priority! A.S.A.P. seems, at first blush, to contemplate this reality by their very intimation to drop everything else.  However, as discussed above, when viewed in the broader perspective, these Lazy Deadline actually create more ineffectiveness and inefficiency during the work flow process than they solve.  The best solution is to slow down just a notch and articulate (or seek articulation of) clear date/time specific deadlines for all work.

One thought on “Deadline Setting is a Team Sport”

  • Good stuff. When you do receive an actual objective deadline, a good practice is to ask, “How did you arrive at that?” Many specific deadlines are arbitrary, supplied merely to satisfy the newly-adopted specificity requirement. Gently challenging it will expose the lack of legitimate support for an arbitrary deadline, allowing a discussion of the real deadline. Often, there isn’t one; the expressed deadline is merely the requestor’s personal preference. Sorry, but “desirements” go to the end of the line after requirements. (That term came from a used-car salesman friend of mine, who distinguished between “desirements and requirements.” I may desire a new Porsche, but I require a fun sports car for under $30,000.)

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