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The Power and Pain of Setting Deadlines, Targets and Time Boxes

Whether we call it time boxing, setting deadlines or setting target dates, the practice of picking and announcing a date upon which some event will take place is common, useful and dangerous.

While we can call them all targets, there are subtle differences. Deadlines connote musts. The term is said to have originated during the U.S. Civil war at a prison camp. Anyone who crossed the deadline would be shot. In the newspaper business, the deadline is the point in time that copy must be delivered to get the paper printed and delivered on time. Missing a deadline has a serious impact.

Target dates are softer. The target is set, but, as in archery and target shooting, there is a reasonable expectation of hitting the target. Missing the target therefor does not result in “death”. Coming close to the target is often considered a success.

In project planning, time boxing is a method for establishing a target date for delivering a clearly defined set of functions. In time boxing the scheduled target date drives the scope. In most other types of planning the scope drives the schedule.

Setting targets and time boxing have a softer, more flexible connotation than deadlines. Targets can be missed by a mile or an inch. Time boxes are set with a solid understanding of scope, resource availability and effort. If a time box target date is missed, remedies like de-scoping are readily available and the impact is not usually that great.

All scheduling results in target dates, that have been set with a focus on what has to be done, how much time and effort it takes to do it and who is available to do it. Scheduling is a complex synthesis of these factors totarget dates

The pros and cons of Expected Completion Dates

Like most practices, setting dates has its pros and cons.

In favor of setting deadlines is the fact that they are often necessary. Government regulations and start of school are examples. Even when not necessary they are useful because they motivate timely completion and make it possible to plan more effectively.

Unfortunately target dates are often mistaken for deadlines. They tend to be set in stone, often without regard to the relationships between schedule, scope, cost and risk. Many deadlines are arbitrary. There is no external force creating the deadline. it is simply someone’s decision, often motivated by fear, greed or ignorance.


Anytime anyone publishes or even mentions a date at which some event will take place there are expectations. Expectations may be rational or irrational. The irrational ones do not consider the probability of the expectation being successfully fulfilled. They are overly simplistic.

Rational expectations know that no estimate is 100% guaranteed. As the scope and complexity of work increases the ability to estimate with certainty decreases. When there are other variables, like the availability and capability of resources, changed priorities, the delivery of required supplies and inputs, and the weather, the ability to estimate with certainty decreases further.

Expectations lead others to make promises, plan purchases, schedule events and more. When expectations are held by powerful people who are your superiors, sponsors or clients, the impact of not meeting them is greatly magnified. Target dates become deadlines. Fear drives performance and that leads to poor decisions which result in low quality products. Think about how fear of missing a deadline leads to corner cutting and how corner cutting effects outcomes. For example, if to meet a deadline a project team cuts testing or hides flaws, the results can be disastrous.

So what to do?

There are options. You can

  1. Refuse to set any targets until you have finished the work itself. This removes any risk of setting unrealistic expectations.
  2. Set rational targets, estimating as accurately as possible considering all the variables and the probability of success
  3. Accept a mandated deadline

No targets – Just do the Work

Option one works but only under special circumstances. You would need a fairly unlimited budget, a patient sponsor, a high priority, and a difficult to estimate project, perhaps one that has not been done before. The problem is that we need to plan future work and people in powerful place do not like the uncertainty that comes when there is no schedule. Thisreminds my of the scene from ???? In which the Pope calls out to Michaelangelo, who he has commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sisteen Chapel, “when will you make an end?” and Michaelangelo answers “when I am finished.”

Set Rational Targets

Setting rational targets not only implies taking scope, resource availability, cost, and risk into consideration, it implies that expectations are managed. Remember, even the most rationally set target date can become an irrational deadline. All it takes is a sponsor, client or manager who forgets about all the variables and qualifiers and focuses on the date, saying, “You said you be finished by …”.

Managing expectations means giving estimates in ranges, continuously assessing the estimates in light of accomplishments and current conditions, and regularly reminding stakeholders of the probability of hitting the target. Change the target date, scope or other factors when hitting the original target is no longer possible.

Accept the Deadline

Deadlines are often necessary. Even when they are not driven by a compelling reason and are set arbitrarily, you may have no choice but to accept them or lose your job. Note that sometimes losing your job is the best choice, particularly when each project you work on is a forced march to failure and retribution.

Short of quitting, there are two approaches to accepting a deadline. The first is to just dive in and do the work. This is not a particularly skillful approach. Even when the deadline is set, it is necessary to plan and manage expectations.

The skillful approach is to estimate, consider risk and risk remediations. The goal is to determine up front whether the deadline can be met and under what conditions. Estimating and scheduling is about making trade offs among scope, time, cost and resources. It implies risk mangement.

When there is a deadline, time, or duration to be More exact, is valued more than the other factors that drive schedule. To plan to meet the deadline you can reduce scope or increase resources. Sometimes you might choose riskier approaches, always including risk remediation in your planning.

Whether you plan backwards from your deadline or forward from the start time, you want to be realistic. If your planning and estimating shows that you will miss the target, you must do something to change the scenario. If you get to the point at which the scope is cut back so far as you won’t be delivering anything of value, or where the cost of adding resources becomes unacceptable, then you do best to let the powers that be of the probability of failure.

Stakeholders would rather know early on that the deadline is probably not going to be met than become aware of it as the deadline approaches and is passed. There are times when this seems not to be the case. You might think that making the stakeholders aware at the last minute will save you the trouble of presenting the bad news earlier and seeking a change to the deadline. But, don’t do it. Give them all the time you can to assess the trade offs and make rational decisions. If they choose to tell you to “just get it done by the deadline any way you can, or suffer the consequences” just dive in and do the work (according to your plan as best you can. You may or may not be late, but it’s the best you can do.

The Good News

The good news is that few project managers are fired for missing a deadline. Even the most seemingly irrational stakeholder finds it hard to ignore the realities of all of the things that get in the way of on time completion, particularly when the project manager has diligently and persistently presented progress reports that lay out the facts and their implications.

In the end, you can only do what you can do. By definition, the impossible remains impossible regardless of who wants it to be otherwise. Your job as a project manager is to insure that what you think is impossible really is.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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