Abandoning fake deadlines

Deadlines happen in real life, and they work. Christmas happens on December 25 and virtually everyone who celebrates buys their presents on time. Taxes are due on April 15 and few people ask for an extension. Deadlines create urgency and some stress, and they motivate action.

In product development, we often create fake deadlines to impart the same urgency. I call these deadlines fake when missing the deadline has no actual consequence to the business. The deadline exists only so that we pretend it’s real and demonstrate the same stress and urgency that we’d use for a real deadline. Many managers are ignorant to the downside of this tactic.

The fundamental problem with fake deadlines is that they mislead teams about what actually matters. At Managed by Q, we hire smart, ambitious people. I believe the way to maximize the impact of smart people is by helping them understand what’s important. Managing a team towards a goal that’s not important (or that isn’t the most important thing) will lead to suboptimal results for both the team and the company.

Here are some ways in which fake deadlines lead to bad results:

  • They distort priority. Once a team commits to a deadline it’s hard to un-commit. When they learn of more important work, their incentive is to ignore it in favor of meeting the deadline even when that’s the wrong choice.
  • They undervalue quality. I’ve often seen teams, especially inexperienced ones, sacrifice quality to hit a deadline, either by skimping on testing or by pushing back on important tweaks requested by designers and product managers. It’s often smarter to miss a fake deadline than to cut corners.
  • They waste time. When people know they’ll be judged on hitting deadlines, they’ll invest extra time in making and defending estimates. Spending less time on rougher estimates is usually the right decision.
  • They creep scope. Deadlines set an end time, and people tend to make their work last that long. It’s better to identify the fastest way to deliver value, even if it deviates from the initial plan and deadlines.

Product development teams commonly attempt to address these issues by adopting processes like Scrum. Scrum promises to reduce deadline pressure by continuously reprioritizing on a fixed cadence, usually weekly. I’ve found, though, that Scrum’s timeboxed sprints function like fake deadlines. Scrum positions missing a timebox by a day as slipping to the next sprint, a practice that feels like a failure. Though Scrum tends to mitigate scope creep, I often see Scrum teams waste time on estimates, distort priority, and skimp on quality.

When I joined Q, we replaced Scrum with a deadline-free Kanban-like process and had initial success, which I wrote about last year. We also had a couple of projects where our urgency lagged or we lapsed into a deadline mentality. Though these experiences, we’ve learned a few tricks for executing well without deadlines.

How we produce good results without deadlines:

  • Invite scrutiny. To an outsider, a deadline-free process can seem unaccountable. We had to make an extra effort to encourage critical questions from the people and teams who depended on us. Though we don’t have deadlines, we found it important to give an idea of when we’ll do things — or we rob others of the ability to challenge our priorities and to suggest new ones. We send a weekly update to the company and review it live with key stakeholders every week. We position our date estimates as projections and not deadlines so that occasional slips don’t cause alarm.
  • Defer external commitment. Despite our efforts to avoid deadlines, we found that we often set deadline-like expectations if we committed to goals too early. Assigning a date projection to a project implies that it will happen and reduces our ability to shuffle our priorities. We even stopped publishing quarterly OKRs for product development as we found that they implied a deadline. We instead published a vision document that explained our quarterly goals in qualitative terms.
  • Build a culture of high internal commitment. In an environment with no deadlines or hard external commitments, our teams need to strive to deliver quickly. Our teams push themselves to hit dates, but they position these dates as challenges and not deadlines. I’ll hear teams ask at daily stand-up meeting, “Can we ship by Thursday?” A culture of high, visible internal commitment creates trust that’s necessary when a team decides to take a “smart” date slip to improve quality or to work on emerging priorities.
  • Celebrate your real wins. At a recent all-hands meeting, one of our teams recently announced a 100x improvement in an important customer experience metric. It was a big win and a huge surprise, given their goal of a 2x improvement. The company was thrilled. Nobody noticed or cared that the team had slipped their initial estimates by a few days. Celebrating results helps build trust with others and makes it easier to defer external commitments. Celebrating results also reinforces result-seeking behavior.

The big idea here is a simple one. We hire great people who want to make an impact. The best way to get great people to deliver great things is to help them understand what’s important. We shouldn’t try to manage by trickery — asking them to hit fake deadlines, rewarding them when they do, reprimanding when they don’t, and hoping good results will appear as a side-effect. People make bad tradeoffs under those circumstances. We want to set them up to make good tradeoffs.

Moving away from fake deadlines requires a shift in perspective. To make it work we focus on building trust in all directions. We focus on transparency, agility, commitment, and celebration — and believe that they set up talented people to succeed.