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One simple trick to make any deadline manageable

Plans and projections are all guesses because priorities change, people come and go from teams, and new bugs and constraints show up. Here’s a simple strategy to deal.

One simple trick to make any deadline manageable
[Photo: inewsistock/iStock]
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Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky first proposed the planning fallacy in 1977, highlighting the tendency for people to underestimate the time it takes to do things. A paper published by the Project Management Institute highlights examples of how this applied to the completion of professional projects such as Windows Vista, the construction of London’s Wembley stadium, the development of the Airbus 380, and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. The news is also full of other examples, whether it’s Dr. Dre’s Detox album, George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones novels, or Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft: Ghost.

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While deadlines can be great for motivating a team and setting expectations with other people (whether they’re customers or collaborators), people just aren’t naturally that good at setting them. Unrealistic deadlines, and project scopes, set the conditions for what the Basecamp founders David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried call “dreadlines.”

These situations might sound all too familiar:

  • There is an unreasonable amount of work that needs to be done in too little time.
  • The level of quality needed for the deadline is beyond what the time and resources allow for.
  • The original project’s scope expands drastically, without a time or resource extension.

The consequences of an unreasonable deadline can extend far beyond just the initial project. It eats into the team’s culture, making people feel either apathetic toward deadlines (because they always get pushed) or overworking to meet the deadline (leading to burning out and leaving).

At best, deadlines, plans, and projections are all guesses. Priorities change, people come and go from teams, new bugs and constraints show up, and so on.

Heinemeier Hansson and Fried write about one solution to the guessing nature of deadlines in their book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work: Keep the deadline, but allow the scope of a project to decrease. That means the scope can only get smaller, and the people who do the work decide how much can get done. Their name for this technique is the scope hammer, the image of which intentionally suggests breaking a big project into smaller pieces.

While Basecamp’s team works in software development, this philosophy can be applied to more industries. Consider a project where the deadline stands, but essential information or stakeholder sign off is missing. The person can either push the deadline or work overtime once the information gets to them. With the scope hammer philosophy, they might decide to call out the challenge to the team, and in the meantime figure out a simpler way of getting something done.

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Other examples to consider: An SEO expert is waiting on new pages to go live might turn their deliverable, a master keyword list, into a partial list focused on upcoming projects. A designer who discovers an app is much more complicated than originally scoped might work on a simplified prototype. A part-time writer might break their book into smaller chapters, or into even just an article-size passage. Projects turn into micro-projects.

One important key to this technique is to figure out the most valuable and important part of the project. For example, in this lo-fi version of an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act, the Emmy-award winning motion design is replaced by illustrated slideshows, the audience laughs are replaced by synths. But the most valuable parts of the show—the research and comedy writing—are left uncompromised.

When Spotify was building the first version of their product, they wanted to make their music player activate music faster over the internet, to the point where it almost felt like you were playing music from your local hard drive. When that started working, they showed a barely functioning version of their product to friends and family to see if it actually mattered to them. (In case you couldn’t guess, it did.)

Flexible scopes support teams and can turn potential setbacks (pushing a deadline, low morale, or burnout) into an opportunity. Something still gets delivered, which is an opportunity to learn. More importantly, even if it may not be as far forward as a manager might hope, it enables the team to stay motivated.

As author Teresa Amabile writes in Harvard Business Review, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”


Herbert Lui has directed editorial projects for companies like Shopify, Twilio, and Intuit. He writes a newsletter recommending and showing quotes from the best books to read.