The Tao of Deadlines
September 19, 2007
Deadlines are a useful and ever-present factor in our work. To be a professional designer you’ve got to love and respect deadlines. But in order for you to have this proper, positive attachment to deadlines you must work to ensure that deadlines don’t become an obstacle to the quality of your work or a negative factor toward your reputation. Most of us are likely familiar with the origin of the term, but the modern aspect of deadlines in our work doesn’t need to be quite so sinister.
Veerle Pieters recently wrote an article entitled, “Deadlines Kill Inspiration.” This title is quite inaccurate, as deadlines can have absolutely no impact on inspiration or creativity. But the content of Veerle’s article described rather accurately where the problems lie with regard to inspiration and deadlines (though the title and theme of the article misattribute responsibility). To be clear, problems with deadlines almost always come down to one root problem: poorly managed business.
No client ever caused a designer to miss a deadline. If you believe otherwise, you’re laboring under a grave misapprehension (not to mention that you’ve got a victim-mentality). Such an unhealthy attitude makes it difficult for responsible deadline management to occur. Deadlines do not exist in a vacuum.
I hope you can agree that professionalism requires a designer must never miss a deadline. There are circumstances that arise in business and project processes that sometimes make it difficult to meet some deadlines, but missing a deadline is an inappropriate way to respond to that situation. It’s the designer’s responsibility to do what is necessary to deliver on his/her promise. Every time. Period. That’s what a deadline is: a promise.
I know that some agencies make it a practice to regularly contact clients to request that one or more deadlines be pushed back, for one reason or another. There’s no two ways about it: this is exclusively the habit of badly run and irresponsible agencies. Clients of these companies (or individuals) should never put up with such shoddy practice, and should be busy finding better, more responsible agencies with which to spend their money.
Things will not always go smoothly. Bad things happen. Bad clients happen. Accept, however, that none of these common factors are license to behave irresponsibly.
I’m sure that some of you reading this may be thinking, “That sounds a bit extreme. It’s just a fact of business; stuff happens and delays regularly creep into projects.” I agree, but only to the extent that this is true only of poorly run design businesses and poorly managed projects.
You see, responsible deadline management requires more than just a designer willing to do whatever it takes. If that were the case, we’d all be run ragged with the required effort (and likely producing ragged results). No, there are many factors that contribute to responsible deadline management and I want to go over a few of them here.
Estimating and scheduling
Surely among the primary factors in our being able to meet deadlines is our ability to accurately estimate the time required for each phase of a project, and the related ability to effectively distribute the various projects in our queue. In order to do this successfully you have to know certain things:
You have to know your work habits
- You must have a clear grasp of your general work habits and know from experience how long it typically takes you to accomplish specific tasks in the design process.
- In addition to this general understanding, you’ve got to factor in the other work (from other external and internal projects) that will likely be going on during the project tasks in question.
You have to know the client’s character and processes
- If it was a difficult and extended process to get the client to commit to the project, it will likely be an extended process to get each step of the project accomplished. Craft lengthier deadlines.
- If approvals and project reviews will be accomplished by more than one person or by any sort of committee, you can be reasonably assured that approvals will become an exaggerated and tiresome process. Craft lengthier deadlines and milestones.
- If you’re dealing with a single person and they’re confident in your abilities, you may expect things to run quite smoothly. Craft typical deadlines.
Aside from trust, nothing in any design project is more valuable than an intelligently crafted contract and/or project scope document—along with the client’s full appreciation of the specific elements. As for the second part of that, when it comes to reviewing contracts with clients, be sure to deliberately point out the client responsibilities as described in the contract(s). They must be made to appreciate that the project is not a one-sided affair. They must work as diligently as you in order for the project to be a success. Few clients understand this of their own accord.
Be sure to do the following:
- Clearly define the timeline; including production deadlines, approval deadlines, and other milestones.
- Clearly describe the importance of the project schedule. Make sure that the client understands that when they fail to meet their timeline obligations, the project will likely be damaged in several ways—and they (the client) will have to suffer specifically outlined consequences.
- Clearly define the consequences of project delays (of approvals, content delivery, etc…) so that 1) you have the appropriate means to deal with delays, and 2) clients are not surprised and upset when specific sanctions are imposed (for instance, in my contracts it clearly states that any delay or out-of-contact period of 5 days or more will mean that there may be a waiting period equal to that delay before we can work the project back into our schedule to resume work—with appropriate adjustments to the milestones, of course. This helps to motivate the client, protects us somewhat, and mitigates the damage to other deadlines).
- Get the client to acknowledge all specifics with regard to schedules and milestones. And document those acknowledgements!
No project runs itself. Responsible project management is a vital component in allowing everyone to meet deadlines. In addition to the typical elements of project management, make sure to:
- Communicate regularly with the client. Make sure that everyone knows what’s going on at all times.
- Clearly define next steps. No deadline or milestone is an island; it is a critical springboard toward the next step and a subsequent milestone, for which some specific person is responsible.
- Never let a schedule anomaly go unaddressed. Cite the delay or the situation and clearly define how it affects the ongoing project and related milestones.
- Always exhibit courtesy and responsibility—and make it clear that you expect the same in return from the client. Everyone wants to meet expectations, so let the client know your expectations.
- Always hit your deadlines.
Be the pro
Professionals act professionally and responsibly. If you’re not doing so, you can hardly expect your client to be professional and responsible in return. Lead by example in all aspects of project behavior.
Things will not always go smoothly. Bad things happen. Bad clients happen. Accept, however, that none of these common factors are license to behave irresponsibly. When the crap hits the fan it may mean that long hours and extra effort are required in order to meet the deadline. If that’s what’s required, just do it. The alternative does not reflect well on you or your reputation.
By the same token, these sorts of mishaps can easily be limited by following the advice offered above. But whatever the case, don’t start looking at deadlines negatively. Deadlines are your friend. Deadlines are a necessary and beneficial component of professional work. Deadlines allow you to demonstrate, in some measure, your ability and your responsibility. Clients respect that. And even if one doesn’t, rest assured he will not respect you breaking your promise. No one does.