Are Due Dates Making your Project Run Late?

By Stuart Corrigan, 2022.

Professional research has shown the concept of setting targets to be a silly idea. Daniel Pink’s research showed how target setting reduces motivation to do the job at hand. As early as 1956 Martin Ridgway was writing about the dysfunctional behaviour associated with target setting.

There is the obvious question of how you set the target in the first place. Finger in the air, add ten percent? Not very scientific is it…

The assumption is that projects are different. After all, setting a due date is quite scientific – is it not? Ask people’s opinion of when they think something will be finished, write it down and hey-presto we have an accurate estimate of when the project will be completed. Our research on this subject has uncovered a number of flaws with the assumptions here.

The first is that in most cases, the teams that complete the actual work in projects – the ones that really know how long tasks take – are frequently not involved in the planning process. The Project Manager might build a Gannt chart and circulate it to everyone, but is that really generating debate and encouraging opinion on how long the work might take?

Next, even when there is collaboration, the planning period is usually too long. Attempting to estimate something you will do in eight, twelve, or fifteen weeks from now is unlikely to be accurate. That said, leaders continuously push their teams to estimate projects eighteen to twenty-four months out and set in stone a date that the project will be completed by. Recently, we were asked to help with building such a plan. Our recommendation was to put significant effort into building the tasks for the next three to four months; after that point, the accuracy would suffer. More planning, therefore, should be done nearer the time. The leader (absent from the planning process) wanted fixed dates for the next two years and when the team gave him dates that he didn’t like, he suggested his ‘sniff test’ determined the plan was wrong. Dates were baked in and communicated to the board. We have heard since that the plan is running late.

Projects run late due to poor planning, no real collaboration or involvement from those people who complete the work, setting hard due dates and estimating too far from the planning date. So, what should you differently?

First, you need to accept that your plan will lack accuracy the longer it takes to be completed. Next, get the people who will complete the work involved with the planning. This doesn’t mean simply allowing them to see the plan – involve them in the planning session, develop good descriptions of the artefacts they will be building, and break work down into smaller chunks of 10-15 days. This will all help with estimation. Furthermore, include detail in the first 3-4 months of the plan but after that, don’t waste time estimating too much. Let go of the idea of fixed due dates. Instead, accept that work will vary with some tasks coming in early, and some taking longer. Good task management and measurement of your project will take care of the variation.

In another Financial Services organisation with a late running plan, we began by helping them rethink their approach to planning. The project was running nine months late; but with our help, they were able to deliver it on the original due date. You can read more about it here.  

Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan, until they get a punch in the face. The best plans are subject to assumptions which can often be wrong, but they can be improved by collaborative planning and working to shorter timeframes.

If you would like support with a late running project, you can arrange a free phone call with Stuart himself, or one of our other Critical Chain Project Management experts. On the call you can describe your environment, the challenges you are facing and the goal you want to achieve. Our expert will then offer you the best way forward – whether that’s free resources to learn more or a jump straight to a rapid implementation (best if you are working to a tight deadline).

Arrange your free conversation with one of Goldratt UK’s experts by emailing [email protected] or phoning 01234 834510.