Real or Not Real? Deadlines in Project Management

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of

Your team is busily working to meet a deadline for an upcoming project, and you’re wondering whether you’re going to be able to pull it together. Everyone is getting nervous, drinking a lot of coffee and Mountain Dew, and staying at the office until the wee hours of the morning. But have you or your project manager stopped to think about whether you are working towards a “real” deadline, or spinning your wheels to meet one that is “not real”?

When real deadlines are not met, there will be negative consequences (e.g. product failures, loss of revenue, loss of goodwill, loss of credibility). Deadlines that are “not real” may have consequences internal to your organization (e.g. loss of goodwill with your boss, delay in providing materials to other employees in your company) but typically can be shifted with less impact.

So why do project managers even set deadlines that are “not real”? Sometimes, internally-focused milestones are required to keep a team aligned, and to provide feedback to assess how well the team is progressing towards externally-focused deadlines. More often, the reasons for originally setting a real deadline have shifted, and the original scenario no longer applies – but no one has stopped to reflect on the fact that the previously set deadline has shifted from being a real one, to one that is not real.

Here are some examples of cases where the deadlines are “real”:

  • “Life or Death”/”Health or Wellness” situation. If you or someone else will die, or otherwise experience a degradation in their health or sanity or well-being as the result of your actions or inactions, then your deadline is real.
  • Time-sensitive systems. This is a special case of the “life or death” situation. If your products or processes will stop working unless you deliver a fix by a certain time, then the deadline is real. Y2K was an example of this kind of deadline (regardless of whether the potential impacts were enough to incapacitate software).
  • Cash flow requirements. If you or your company will run out of money unless you meet your deadline, then you are facing a very real deadline.
  • Previously set external expectations. If you promised a customer that you would deliver their final project on December 5th, the deadline is real. Not meeting the deadline will result in a loss of revenue, credibility, goodwill, and potentially future business as well. Aggressively setting expectations and striving for transparency are two tactics that can help make “real” deadlines like this a little more malleable.
  • Inflexible resource allocations. If you only have access to a team member for a limited time before their visa expires, or if you only have enough money to employ contractors for three months, then getting done what you need to get done in a limited time forms a real deadline.
  • Biological constraints. Oftentimes a woman’s “biological clock” must be considered for deadlines that involve producing new children, but there are other biological constraints that may impact deadlines as well. For example, if today is Saturday and you have a major deliverable due on Wednesday, you could choose to stay awake 24/7 to get it done but you would probably not be successful. Your biological need for sleep (and possibly food as well) would thwart your project plans.
  • Inflexible policy. If your company has a policy that you are required to follow, and it impacts your projects or milestones, it is very likely that you are facing a real deadline (but you might want to ask the “owner” of the policy you are being impacted by, to confirm). As a more extreme example, if a curfew has been imposed in your area, you will need to finish what you’re doing before a certain time of night.
  • Meeting laws and regulations. On April 25, 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill was passed, increasing the stringency of requirements for financial reporting. Companies were required to take steps to comply immediately, and had a limited amount of time to prove their compliance (or else there would be financial and legal consequences). When deadlines are externally imposed, and not meeting them can cause lawsuits and fines, they are real.
  • Shifting sentiment/public opinion/seasonality. If you need to deliver a product that’s meant for use in the summer, and the ice has started to melt and people are headed to the beach, then your deadline is probably very real. If you need to capture “buzz” or other trends in popular culture, and you risk selling less product or increasing your market reach if you don’t finish your work on time, you are facing a real deadline.

How can you tell if a deadline is real? Look for the root cause of the deadline, for example, by asking “5 Whys”. One you know why a milestone or a deadline has been established, you will be better able to find ways to iron out issues that arise when your work is delayed. Furthermore, you will more easily recognize where to focus your team’s effort to prevent negative consequences.

[Note: Some people prefer to call these “hard” and “soft” or “firm” and “not firm” deadlines, but I like the angst that comes along with calling them “real” and “unreal” even though it requires a little bit of hyperbole. Note 2: These elements were brainstormed with Ron DuPlain.]


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