“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – Douglas Adams

What to do when deadlines slip?

First, don’t panic. Next, gather your information, take a deep breath, and get ready to do some quick thinking – and acting.

Love them or hate them, deadlines are a part of life. As a freelance content marketing writer, consultant and marketing teacher, deadlines are as much a part of my life as a cup of strong coffee in the morning; in other words, I need them to survive.

When you’re working with a group of people on a project, however, deadlines can be tricky to navigate. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to get everyone on the team to adhere to a schedule and meet deadlines. Even when the willingness is there, conflicting priorities, unexpected delays, and life events like someone coming down with the flu can derail the best project schedule and make deadlines impossible to meet.

What then? What to do when deadlines slip?

Here’s a short primer on what to do when you see a deadline slipping on a critical project. Of course, your reaction to the problem may change depending on how critical the project is, your role on the team, and whether or not someone else can fill the gap and help meet the deadline. Only you or your project manager can decide which of these methods will work for your project and team.

5 Project Planning Tips to Help Teams Meet Deadlines

  1. Make sure all parties understand the reasoning behind the deadlines: Many years ago, I was brought into a marketing agency as a consultant to help the agency understand why their direct mail pieces were being delivered after the offer expired on them. The client was justifiably angry that their mailings were a waste of money, since by the time customers received the offer, the coupons inside had expired. When I spoke with the creative and production departments, the issue wasn’t that they didn’t understand deadlines, it was that the mailing client itself didn’t understand the time requirements for direct mail. The coupon vendor was submitting projects without adequate time for the production team to meet the deadline; even by working around the clock to design and mail the coupon-filled envelopes, the way the United States mail works they couldn’t possibly get the coupons into the customers’ hands on time. By working with both the client and the account managers to help them understand the need for more flexible deadlines, the problem was solved. Make sure that your team members not only understand what the deadlines are but why they’re critical, especially when factors such as mailing times are completely out of your control.
  2. Allow adequate time for each project component to be completed: Another problem with meeting deadlines is under-estimating how long each task on a project plan will take. If you’re not sure, find out from previous project documentation or other team members how long this or a similar task took in the past. Then use that figure as your baseline.
  3. Build cushion time into a schedule: Always build more time than you think you need into a project schedule. A little cushion goes a long way to helping teams meet deadlines.
  4. Check on the progress of project milestones as well as the overall progress: One way to ensure that deadlines don’t slip is to check project milestone completion. Milestones, or small sub-goals leading to a larger goal, are a good way to ensure that projects stay on track. It is also helpful to spot issues in a project or individuals who may be over burdened and unable to complete their tasks in the future.
  5. Don’t over commit. The biggest flaw in any project plan is over committing people’s time. It’s a common flaw, especially among top performers. When someone is good at what they do, managers tend to fight for their time, which ends up overburdening them and over committing them to too many projects. Then deadlines begin to slip and projects fall behind. Spread the work out and be sure to check with other managers before scheduling someone’s time to ensure they have adequate time to work on your needs, too.

What to Do When Teams Miss Deadlines

When a deadline starts to slip and you noticed project milestones lagging behind, ask:

  • Will more people working on it help?
  • Can the project component be cut without sacrificing the quality of the project?
  • Can you make up time in the schedule in other areas?
  • Can the task be outsourced to someone else?
  • Can the task be broken into smaller portions and handed off to several people?
  • Does the person adequately understand the task itself?

Many years ago, my marketing department was working on a major marketing plan for a new product launch. Our advertising coordinator kept missing his deadlines on the project. It turned out that he was both over committed and unsure of his next steps on his deliverable.  I worked with him to re-negotiate his work load and priorities, as well as to break down his task into smaller, more manageable milestones. Another team member, eager for a project to help her add to her resume for a potential promotion, asked to tackle a portion of the advertising work, so she was able to help, too. We were able to guide the project back on track and meet the deadlines with a little team work, quick thinking, and trust.

Such a scenario only works with the last item – trust. Your team members must trust you enough to ask for help or guidance when it is needed. They won’t come to you to tell you that they’re missing a deadline if they feel you’ll get angry with them or that help isn’t forthcoming. As a manager, earning your team’s trust comes from consistent management practices and a calm demeanor. When a project plan starts slipping, your team members will then feel confident enough to come to you to ask for help rather than hiding the fact that they might miss a deadline.