Managing Deadlines

In this day and age, the gravity of the phrase, “drop dead date,” is lost in translation. Just what does this phrase mean? As any salt-worthy project manager and producer knows, it can mean just about anything. 

However, be savvy when examining deadlines. Just because someone gives you a date doesn’t always mean it is the real date, you need to do a background check to ensure that the time you are given is honest and true. It is up to you as a project manager to find out if the date is fixed, flexible, past-due or just plain made up. In some cases, there may be other due dates prior to the final deadline that are even more important. For example, quick deadlines can mean very short client approval times. Your client may have very restrictive approval dates and times. It’s essential for you to find out up front.

    Why is this important? It can mean all the difference in deciding which resources to put on task, how much the budget is going to be and how many late nights and weekends its going to take to finish the project. This is especially important in an environment where all projects have a sense of urgency. Let’s face it, when everything is rush and the deadlines almost always seem to get pushed back, your team looses trust in you and can in-turn stop caring about the work, and that’s the last thing you want to happen. 

So what can you do to manage deadlines?

Set expectations from the start. 

Establish what a real sense of urgency is. Distinguish real deadlines from the fake ones. Be real and be honest and require that of your team and client.

Be a role model. Tight deadlines are stressful. Don’t freak out. Nip conflict and grumbling in the butt, before it develops. Care about the work.

Be optimistic. The way you portray the situation often goes a long way in getting people to rise to the occasion. Deal with feelings in your team in a supportive and positive manner.

Manage your team. Delegate, check in, but give people time, even if its shorter task deadlines. Don’t say, “I need this right away, or yesterday.” Define small deadlines, but make people accountable for them. And by all means, stick to those times and dates.

Make sure all members of your team are available, that means all creatives, account people, production staff and the clients. Set expectations for key milestones to ensure quick approvals.

Protect your team members from distraction. Let them focus on what needs to get done.

Be responsive. Be available to your team and get answers.

Maintain high standards and quality control. During crazy times, quality control is super important. Do not accept anything less then perfection. Too many times projects explode over simple proofreading errors or mistakes. Take the time to check the phone numbers, URLs and specs yourself, in addition to your quality control team.

Be flexible. Fast deadlines can mean constant change.  

Be engaged, be a leader.

I would love to put the phrase “Which one do you want, Cheap, Fast or Great?” to its final resting place. It no longer applies in today’s world. Not to say that many projects don’t suffer these constraints under tight deadlines. 

We certainly shouldn’t be encouraging disadvantageous project scenarios. But producing quick turn-around projects successfully on all three of these fronts can still happen in today’s work environment. Because there are always people that a client can go to that will convince them that they can do it faster, cheaper or better. The only thing that you provide your client that is any different from any other agency is what value you bring to the table. If you are no longer bringing value to the table, a client is going to go elsewhere.

I think we can all look back at some of our most successful creative projects and smile. We all know of those projects, the ones we actually put in our books, the ones that have won awards, those often come about under great pressure. Why does great work sometimes happen during these times? When a deadline is real, and a client is willing to share risk — creatively, teams rise to the occasion.

Establish priorities. 

Priorities tell the team where to focus, it also tells them what happens if you don’t meet them. Setting deadlines and prioritizing work requires a balance however. 

To summarize, don’t set unrealistic goals, impose fake ones or even vague ones. Nothing will kill your team’s momentum faster, or create unwanted team behaviors. As a team leader, this is where you should feel comfortable in getting the team to participate in priority setting. You can guide them through assessing the asks, and determining what to do first. You can also help you team by being the voice for feedback on achieving goals, as well as sharing with the team how their project activities effect the overall goals of the project.

I know managing projects can be really stressful. How you choose to handle these tight deadlines and what your attitude is, really does have an impact on others.