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Swap Deadlines for “Do-Lines”

If your teams are dependent on deadlines to complete work, Agile provides a better way to boost productivity

By Bia Dimovski, BreakFree Solutions, Senior Agile Coach


Deadlines seem to be our culture’s norm. There’s a seemingly infinite amount of information to be found on the importance of setting deadlines, and how and why setting deadlines works on the human psyche.

But, in that pool of data and variety of data interpretations I am yet to find something that connects these dots to a meaningful payoff.

If deadlines are a successful technique leading to valuable results then why are there so many projects which are moved, postponed, or simply miss the deadline? Or projects that met the deadline only after adjusting scope and/or budget?

Don’t get me wrong, deadlines are not all bad. But it’s not the deadline itself that’s a problem; It’s how organizations go about setting deadlines and the entire experience of how people react from the time a project deadline is set to the actual meeting of that deadline.

Why organizations transforming to Agile can’t let go of deadlines

To change something, you must first understand the very thing you are actually trying to change.

Humans like to be certain. We like to know what’s going to happen before it happens. And since we can’t see the future before it happens, we tend to do everything we can to try and predict what could happen.

And even though in doing so, we tend to be wrong more times than we care to admit or keep track of, we continue to chase this illusionary projection of how things should work.

Many organizations are married to project deadlines because there is this pre-conceived notion that if everything is planned out and timed upfront, then surely there will be no reason, nor will there be room for things not to work out. Right? Well…

Let me share two productivity related laws relevant to the topic of deadlines:

  • The Hermes-Dodson law which states that a person’s performance increases as their stress increases, but only up to a point, after which performance starts to suffer as the person becomes overwhelmed or distracted; and

  • The Parkinson’s law which states that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.

How do these two laws relate to deadlines? Deadlines are time-bound indicators that work must stop when the time is up. As such, deadlines tend to increase stress — how much work can we cram in before time is up? — and therefore affect performance.

Based on these two laws, I dare to make the argument that deadlines are neither motivators nor are they guarantees that actual value will be delivered to customers in a meaningful manner. In fact, given the history of many failed projects I would further suggest deadlines are arbitrary — based on individual will or judgment and contingent solely upon one's discretion.

For example, what you think is possible to complete within a year may grossly vary from what I think can be completed within a year, which will probably end up being vastly different from what will actually be completed that same year! See where this is going?

Despite this phenomenon that keeps resurfacing time and again, organizations can’t let go of deadlines. Why? Because deadlines are like a security blanket for leadership.

They tend to provide a sense of accomplishment once they are set. But in setting deadlines there are three factors that are being left out that I believe if leadership takes the time to consider, will substantially change the way organizations view deadlines.

In fact, it may prove deadlines do not and should not be the main focus for determining project success. Those factors are:

  1. The leadership's level of domain awareness and general knowledge in the work involved that supports a project’s vision;

  2. The organization's collective mindset; and

  3. The many unknown factors involved in most every project as soon as the project starts.

As humans we tend to procrastinate. When given a deadline we often stretch the work by not fully focusing on it at the beginning of a project and then becoming progressively more and more focused as the time to complete the work starts running out.

This also makes us intense as we get closer to the final stretch. Some people like to think they work better under pressure. And that may be true, to an extent. But I would challenge the quality of the outcome pushed through to the other side. It’s like people believing they can multitask or actively run two to three conversations at the same time. Hmm… Can you really? Humans simply can’t multitask. Multitasking is a term that refers to a computer system capability. Somewhere down the line humans thought multitasking would be a cool skill to put on a resume.

The fact that a person’s performance begins to suffer at some point during stress increase, such as a set deadline, speaks to the notion that deadlines may not carry the type of absoluteness many leaders seek.

This is because deadlines are stressors that decrease teams’ motivation. It makes sense, especially knowing that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. This is because we tend to procrastinate to fill in the time we are given to fulfill a task.

Contrary to popular belief that deadlines drive people and organizations to productive and successful outcomes, when organizations put all their focus on deadlines, they are operating in a less than optimal way that produces less than optimal results.

Why? Because their teams are minimally motivated and there is a vast disconnect between leadership and teams when it comes to understanding what the project/product actually is and what it would actually take to get it done — domain awareness.

Imagine the results you would get as a leader if instead of hovering over teams to meet deadlines, you took the time to help motivate your teams! Who knows, you may even find yourself ahead of your schedule.

So how can organizations turn things around?

Time to reframe deadlines to do-lines

In his book “Atomic Habits,” James Clear talks about the importance of building habits. The key to this is to make these habits small enough, obvious enough, attractive enough, easy enough and satisfying enough that the outcome they will ultimately produce will become seemingly effortless. It will be the compilation of small habits over extended period of time that will drive the results everyone is seeking (from dev team members to top leadership).

To reach this type of mindset, organizations must first understand that customers’ needs change rapidly and it is the ability to respond to these changes that will create great outcomes — not setting arbitrary project deadlines that will be moved, postponed or not met.

Organizations need to truly acknowledge that setting deadlines, especially project deadlines that aim too far in the future, is a habit that has not and will not serve them well. “Ok,” you say. “So how will anything get done if there are no deadlines?” That's a good question and also the heart of the problem.

People and organizations associate deadlines with getting things done. I coach organizations to start associating getting things done with work that adds value to the customers from the beginning of a project and continues to add value all through the project and beyond.

I coach them to stop associating getting things done with work that is in the dark until a project deadline is reached and is only supposed to add value when completed but does not go much further than that.

One way that organizations can start switching to this mindset is to reframe the way they see and understand deadlines today. Start replacing deadlines with do-lines. A deadline implies how long you can hold on to something before it’s released. It can be a decision, information, a project. This can be rather nerve wracking.

A do-line, as I like to call it, is a path leadership opens to teams the moment a vision is born and is to be realized. When you talk to your teams in terms of a do-line you are empowering them to do work based on mutual trust that when a vision is shared and requirements for that vision are clearly communicated, the discussions for the work that follows will focus on how much value is being added to the customers — not how close teams are to meeting a deadline.

In essence, instead of deadlines, set outcomes for your vision. Then focus on reaching those outcomes as fast as you can without completely overwhelming yourself and your teams — did someone say iteration?

You’d be surprised how fast you’ll start seeing results from your teams who will be much more motivated now that they can actually focus on doing the best work they can instead of being asked to predict the future and chase deadlines. 

Exit the world of deadlines: Experience Agile

On a more tactical level, for organizations where leadership is truly interested in exiting the world of deadlines, I guide them to start where they are and to start small.

Give your teams clear and meaningful requirements for what it is you want to accomplish with your project/product vision. Then let them actually do the work instead of asking them when the work will be done — let teams work iteratively and develop work in increments.

Instead of deadlines let team use Sprints to guide you through their progress. And as part of tracking that progress, feel free to show up to your teams Sprint Reviews. Ask questions to help better understand what the teams do that adds value to the business, to your customers. Give them feedback on each increment of work so they can make appropriate adjustments and improve as they go. This will make results evident much faster.

If you are truly committed to experiencing Agile in your organization, it’s time to let go of deadlines. 

Start by focusing on the following areas first:

Do not set deadlines - set do-lines

  • Let your customers know your team is working on a product that will benefit them in one way or another. Direct the attention of your customers to the benefits, not a final date you will be releasing something to them.

  • Use Sprints instead of deadlines (the shorter the Sprints the better). Remember when I said it’s not the deadline itself that’s bad? It’s the sheer charade around deadlines organizations put so much attention to that shifts the focus away from what matters — work that adds value. Sprints are time-boxed, and each Sprint’s end is marked by a Sprint Review that occurs at a set interval. But the beauty of using Sprints is:

    • Sprints are set to one to two weeks in the future (not months or years in the future).

    • The end of a Sprint doesn’t mean you ran out of time. It means you pause to see how far you were able to get and get a better idea of where you are headed for the next couple of weeks of your marathon. There’s much more oxygen at this altitude for the team, huh? No wonder your teams are motivated — they can breathe!

Turn to the backlog

  • Set expectations during project kickoff.

  • Have a clear vision statement that includes the project’s value and why it makes sense.

  • Set roles and responsibilities (eg., Driver, Approver, Contributors).

  • Set in-scope and out-of-scope guidelines

  • Set trade offs

  • Let teams work — get out of their way unless your involvement provides constructive feedback. Your confidence level over whether the deadline will be met is not constructive feedback! Which is a topic you will not bring up because if you got this far in the blog post you know better than to set arbitrary deadlines forecasting six months or god-forbid a year from now!

Show progress over percentages

  • Discussions on where we are and what we can do to improve are much more meaningful, have a lot more to offer, and give a much more complete picture (once resistance fades) than a percentage bar of a project chart.

  • Showing progress relative to work rather than relative to deadlines makes for much healthier and more sustainable outcomes.

Use Sprint Reviews to tell a story and request feedback 

  • Close the disconnect between teams and leadership by reconnecting via engagement and active, direct feedback during Sprint Reviews.

  • Continue to give direct feedback at any time during the Sprint.

  • Come to Sprint Reviews with a collaborative mindset rather than looking for a presentation of status reports.

If you want to increase your team's productivity, stop setting deadlines and start setting "do-lines." A do-line is a visual representation of the amount of work that can be completed by a certain date. It takes the pressure off of having to meet a deadline and allows your team to focus on getting the work done. Reach out for help implementing this strategy using SCRUM methodology. Our experts are here to help!

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