Among other things, your performance as a project manager depends on effective deadline management to deliver projects on time.
However, we all know projects rarely go to plan, and it’s important to be able to navigate the multitude of uncertainties that arise in projects when it comes to time and deadlines.
In this article, we’ll look at the common reasons deadlines get missed and provide tips on improving a project team’s chances of meeting them.
Let’s dive in!
Three main reasons project teams miss deadlines
There are many reasons why deadlines get missed, but these are the three most important ones I’ve seen in my experience as project manager:
1. Poor project planning. Having a poor plan is a surefire way to ensure you miss deadlines. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” There are many reasons why project plans are inadequate or unrealistic, such as lack of time or clear requirements or the project manager’s inexperience. Make sure you always plan effectively, and if you don’t feel you’re being given the time or necessary level of detail to do so, raise this with a megaphone!
2. Poor estimates. You need to have good estimates to build your project plan and set realistic expectations. If you don’t leverage historical data of previous projects or use subject matter experts to estimate project work, it’s very likely deadlines will end up unrealistic or inefficient. Especially if you also don’t factor in the tendencies of people to be too optimistic or pessimistic with estimates.
3. Scope creep. Those times when new work creeps up that wasn’t initially planned for is a good way to derail your deadline management. However, if managed correctly, this should only affect a few of your deadlines and you’ll be able to shift them to later dates.
These are the three main reasons for missed deadlines, but there are so many others, such as issues with team availability, project dependencies, poor communication, unexpected risks or blockers. There’s no shortage of reasons projects don’t get completed on time.
So the question is: how do you put yourself in a strong position to meet project deadlines?
10 super tips to ensure project teams meet deadlines
1. Create a project schedule that isn’t manual
Creating a project schedule is a given (or it should be!), but my biggest advice is that your project schedule shouldn’t be manual.
I often see people creating initial project schedules or timelines in Excel, Google Sheets or Powerpoint. This approach might work for an initial schedule, but the problems start when you need to change pretty much anything.
Keeping a manual project schedule updated is a nightmare. For example, imagine if you want to shift the timeline for one project task—how do you then ensure all the dependent tasks shift correctly, too? It’s a lot of manual (and potentially risky) work to do this in a spreadsheet, especially if there are multiple levels of dependencies. Suddenly, your manual project schedule becomes impossible to keep updated accurately, and your team starts to miss deadlines.
Instead, you can use a project planning tool like Float to keep your scheduled work and plans. Float makes it easy to shift tasks, phases, milestones, or entire timelines when needed without losing data or other task allocations.
2. Establish realistic deadlines
Sometimes deadlines get missed because they weren’t realistic to begin with.
In my early days as a project manager, I fell into the trap of wanting to please stakeholders, or were unable to handle their pressure. This resulted in unrealistic deadlines and got me severely burned out.
Today, I’m confident to state that if you ever feel you have unrealistic deadlines on a schedule, never ignore them and work hard to make them realistic. If it means insisting for more time for you or the team, so be it.
Create the most realistic schedule and then explain your reasoning to stakeholders, providing as much evidence and data as you can to support it. Resist accepting unrealistic demands—trust me, it’s much better to take your stand on day one than having to explain why deadlines are starting to slip later. I know it’s easier said than done, but we all need to learn to challenge back.
3. Break down work into manageable and trackable chunks
Breaking large pieces of work into more manageable chunks makes it easier to track progress.
Imagine you have a project schedule that has a three-month alllocation of software engineering time. If you try and track progress against a single large block of time, you will quickly find you can’t do it reliably. You may know that some phases have started and be able to get (dubious) estimates from the team on what percentage of the work is complete, but that’s not enough. With this approach, you have a missed deadline risk on your hands.
Instead, break that large schedule block into smaller chunks with clear deliverables. This way, you can track progress much more easily and know sooner if things are ahead, on or behind schedule.
4. Prioritize critical path tasks
When you’ve built a project schedule, you’ll know which tasks are critical for project success. These tasks are often the largest and carry the highest risk, which means they are the most commonly overrun.
To minimize missed deadlines, schedule these to start and finish as early as possible in the project. Βest case scenario is that you finish the critical path early. But, if things start to get funky and go wrong, you will have more time to solve the delays and avoid falling behind schedule.
5. Clarify dependencies early on
On larger projects, dependencies can wreck havoc in your schedule—if one task gets delayed, its dependent tasks (and their dependent tasks) will fall behind too. In larger companies, it’s not uncommon for a project to depend on several teams completing large, complex work at specific times. In smaller companies and projects, a dependency may be simpler, but still necessary to manage correctly.
To minimize risk when it comes to dependencies, be sure to gain initial commitment from those you depend on. For example, in a tool like Float, you can schedule task allocations (both confirmed and tentative) months ahead of time and assign dependencies, which will appear clearly on the schedule. Team members will know what work is coming up and when they need to have it completed.
Also, do frequent check-ins as the task’s start date approaches, almost to the point of being annoying. 😏 Use status updates or standup meetings to ensure the work and its deadline is clear.
6. Identify and manage risks
A comprehensive risk log and mitigation plan allow you to preempt any issues you may face on a project.
This means that you’re putting yourself in the best possible position to deal with issues quickly and cause minimal impact on your deadlines.
Always be prepared!
7. Monitor progress and react early to issues
I’m sure most project managers do this well, but it’s always worth hammering home the importance of monitoring project progress against plans. Frequently comparing estimates to actual progress is the only real way to know if you’re going to hit or miss any deadlines.
For many of my projects, I advocate for a daily 15-minute check-in where I can get quick updates from the project team on how things went the day before. This may seem like overkill sometimes, but having weekly update sessions is often too late to spot schedule issues and be able to react quickly enough.
I also try to foster a project team culture where people know and feel comfortable raising their hands whenever they hit a blocker. Some folks won’t always do this without being prompted, and this has caused me real problems regarding the project schedule in the past. So, starting from the kickoff meeting and throughout the project, remind people to raise any blockers immediately to help you avoid missed deadlines.
With Float’s reports, you can easily compare estimates vs. actuals when it comes to hours worked, budget, and project progress.
8. Deal with unexpected availability issues
Finding out that people you had allocated work to are no longer available can be a pain. But, it can happen for many reasons, such as illness, personal issues, higher priority work, termination or resignations. Even if you have an amazing system for capacity management, things may still change unexpectedly.
This is a tough one to deal with.
The only preemptive measure you can take is always thinking about a plan B if any folks suddenly become unavailable. You need to have people who can take over if the original assignee is no longer available.
In Float, you can easily see availability on the schedule and search for the right person using tags such as skill, seniority, or location.
Keep in mind that you need to have good project documentation in place to ensure new people coming in have enough context to complete the work. Just as important is having the proper support people around them to help them get up-to-speed quickly.
9. Communicate, communicate, communicate
It’s so important to communicate with your bosses, stakeholders, and teams about the project schedule. When project teams stop communicating and are unclear about deadlines or their role, things can often be forgotten, and people lose focus.
So, be sure to communicate regularly (within scheduled checkins or not) so that everyone involved knows the schedule almost as well as you do.
If everyone on a project always knows what deadline they’re working towards and what their responsibilities are, you’re in the best possible position to meet deadlines as a team.
10. Don’t be afraid to shift deadlines
Recognise that deadlines are not always immovable dates that can’t possibly change. Granted, some are less flexible than others, especially those linked to product launches or marketing events. But in general, don’t be afraid to try to change the plan into something more achievable.
If you’re behind on a particular task and you’ve gone through all options to get it done one time, dare to have the tough conversation about moving the deadline. This is always slightly scary to do.
Still, more often than not, if you present the situation to a boss or stakeholder and demonstrate the lengths you’ve gone to try and resolve it, they will be more understanding than you may imagine.
Head of Studio at Movember
The most unexpected benefit of using Float has been the increase in understanding and empathy from our stakeholders. As a small team that's always under the pump, it’s historically been difficult to communicate exactly why we’re not able to get to a new brief for a few days.
Being able to visually show how much we're working on in a way that anyone can understand has been game-changing. It’s helping us educate on the creative process and make it accessible to those not familiar with it.
Now everyone can see how long things actually take, the steps involved, milestones to hit, and what's on everyone's plate. Color mapping our briefs in Float allows me to very quickly show someone why their work can’t be done on the day that they want it. They take one look at our timeline and instantly understand the challenges we face, and together we’re able to work on a way forward rather than being stuck at an impasse.
Meeting deadlines is a learned skill
No project manager in the world will ever meet all project deadlines. But, the more successful ones will develop and deploy strategies that will keep projects mostly on track.
Many of us have learned to do this the hard way, through many mistakes. Take these lessons and turn them into new skills and strategies that will help you manage deadlines effectively.
Keep our 10 tips in mind as a foundational guide for running your projects in better ways—and turn every missed deadlines into an opportunity for improved project planning in the future.
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