Placing priorities over deadlines

December 11, 2020

People have always struggled with the difference between a deadline and a priority. When planning and managing work, which takes precedence? Deadlines are often used to define when work must finish and are usually the default to set expectations and manage work on a team. 

The team understands what it means to make a commitment. If in conversation with the team we can agree on a reasonable date to deliver something, why are we so often disappointed? Why doesn’t this approach work consistently?  It might work when we find an excellent Project Manager who keeps the team focused on the deadline. But at what cost?  

When is a deadline not a deadline?

Whenever I'm asked to complete a task by a given date, I find myself recoiling from the constraint put on me. I immediately challenge the validity of the date. Is it a deadline, a drop-dead date after which delivery of the work is irrelevant? Or is it a happy deadline – an arbitrary date on which the work should finish to make someone happy that their plan is on track?

We are all comfortable with drop-dead deadlines. All of us understand our tax submission deadline.  We know what it means and work every year to meet that deadline.  But too often a deadline is not a deadline. It is an arbitrary date by which work should end. A happy deadline. Unfortunately, happy deadlines don’t work well; my commitment is lower because I know the date is arbitrary. 

Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, explains this well:    

“People aren’t going to hold themselves accountable if they haven’t clearly bought into the same plan”.

This is exactly why arbitrary deadlines don't work.

If I have not bought into your plan, it’s a happy deadline,  not a drop-dead deadline. Even worse, if I miss the deadlines often enough and the consequences are small – it’s an arbitrary deadline after all, so the consequence might simply be another arbitrary deadline – it might become a habit.

How high-performing teams make commitments

If setting an arbitrary deadline is a poor way of asking a team for commitment to work, what’s the alternative? Or to put it a different way, how are high-performing teams motivated to hit their deadlines?

High performing teams seem to get things done without the false pressure of an arbitrary deadline – and they don’t need someone to hold them accountable, either. They do that themselves.

First and foremost, high-performing teams hold one another accountable in three different ways:

  1. Understanding Priority. On an agile team, the Sprint Goal combined with the ordered Product Backlog, helps focus the team on the work to be done first.
  1. Work Clarity. On an agile team, User Stories define the work in small slices they can get their hands on and complete in a short time.
  1. Frequent Iterations. An agile team works with the assumption that work will be delivered frequently (at the end of the iteration).

Clearly, there are many high-performing teams that are not agile teams. However, agile methods tend to share the key attributes of an effective accountability forcing function, three pressures that together allow teams to hold themselves accountable to the commitments they make. The combination of clear priorities, well-defined work packages and short iterations create an accountability forcing function. Given these constraints, high-functioning teams can hold one another accountable for delivering the best possible outcomes based on balancing the work they have to deliver.  

Focusing on priorities not deadlines

After years working as a delivery manager and as an agile coach, I've learned to value priorities over deadlines.

Tasks with set deadlines, perhaps ideal in a well-managed project, leave a lot of room for abuse. As an individual asked to meet a happy deadline, there is little commitment on my side. I may make a mental note that I should do something about it, but fail to deliver.  I might meet a happy deadline but still fail to get the highest priority outcome across the finishing line.  

Focusing on priorities has several benefits.

First, relevance. If our topmost priority is delivered first, followed by our second highest priority and so on, we can be comfortable knowing that the best possible work is being done.

Second, longevity. In general, priorities remain consistent over time. Therefore, if priorities are visible, we only need to manage the exceptions to the known priorities.

Third, agility. When the priorities are known, teams can make their own decisions about when to change direction based on their understanding of the urgency and priority of the work.  

Yet, focusing on priorities alone doesn't work either. If only! Even if we understand priorities, this may not drive the right action. Examples include healthy eating and getting enough exercise, to name just two. We understand the need for them. We want to achieve them.

Unfortunately, as behavioural psychologists understand, human beings are motivated by many different things. So how can we change that? 

To focus on priorities over deadlines we need to understand priorities. This allows us to understand the value of the work and, crucially, make adjustments. We also need a prioritization mechanism that allows us to challenge the priority of work coming at us.  

Next, we must break down the work into bite-size chunks. The healthy eating goal into healthy meals. The exercise goal into workouts. Given both bite-sized work and a prioritization framework, we can rank the work, decide what our immediate near-term objectives are and order the work items. This is the ubiquitous to-do list. Given a well-understood iteration length, we can now make progress. That means healthy eating one meal at a time. It means exercise one workout, hike, or bike ride at a time.

But remember those biases that unhinge the best laid plans? The behavioural psychologists understand a thing or two about how our biases unravel our best intentions.

This is where the team comes in. From numerous 12-step programs to the explosion in networked community-based exercise products, every example hints at the power of accountability to a peer group. High-performing teams are high performing because they are able to hold one another accountable. To get fit, join a small group of like-minded individuals and share your commitment with that group.

In conclusion, real deadlines work. They work because they provide a clear direction regarding priority. But, happy deadlines rarely do. The way agile teams work gives us some insight into why this is the case. Instead, we can extend the power of the real deadline – a proxy for priority – to include other priorities. This allows us to work with non-agile teams using some of the principles at play in agile teams. Knowing that we need people to commit to a priority, to break down the work into work we can complete in a reasonable amount of time, and to review progress on a frequent basis provides a starting point. But we also need the final ingredient and the hidden power of agile teams: the peer group that can hold each other accountable.

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