Crying Wolf at Work – The Danger of False Deadlines


Jared Sanberg has an excellent article on the dangers of false deadlines.

In many offices, setting false deadlines has became as chronic as breaking them.

Molecular biologist Christine Martens has had more than her share of deadlines set to an artificially early date. One of her former bosses set a do-or-die deadline of Thursday afternoon for a research summary report. After she met the deadline, she discovered he had taken off both Friday and the following Monday. "Nobody took his deadlines seriously after that," she says.

Another boss, anticipating lateness, routinely moved all deadlines up. "If there are no consequences to being late — because you aren't really late, because the deadline wasn't real — you'll be late again next time," Ms. Martens says. Making matters worse, that boss made everyone use project timeline software, a graphical representation of a project's progress. Ms. Martens updated it weekly but says, "Wasting time on timeline software didn't seem very productive to me, especially if all I had to do was move the little bars around to be in compliance again."

I have fought this problem at every place I've worked. What I've learned is that consequences have to be real, or people ignore them.

  • “False” and phony anything (deadlines, quotas, consequences, attaboys from headquarters) doesn’t ever work in business. It all goes back to those with a “carrot and the stick” mindset. They think everyone is a jackass.

  • When I oversaw the creative department at a publishing house at the Executive Editor, I had two deadlines: The first served as the best date for creative to be finished so that editors. the advertising dept., and the marketing dept., could get their work done without working 18 hour days. The second was the dropdead date.

    I evaluated performance based on the first date, and pay was partially based on that evaluation. And if the first date was missed, creative took lots of heat from every other department that was now going to have to work late. Guess which date creative always made?

  • Brian Mihalic

    There is a common related management flaw – the belief that there must be a deadline for everything or it won’t ever happen. Many management systems encourage this kind of thinking. Executives who are bound by such thinking will invent false deadlines because it is the only way they know how to execute.

    The fact is some ideas – for product development, process improvement, whatever – need to wait for the right opportunity to arise. Intuitive leaders know this, and can recognize the right moment. Inventing a deadline will result either in poor timing or a missed opportunity.

    Religions have something to teach management theory in this area. Religions know how to keep ideas alive until the right moment comes along (although that works best for the religious individual, not for the congregation).