Don’t Ask About Deadlines and Due Dates

Civil War drawing of the Dead Line

Many project managers ask this question early in any discussion, “What is the dead line?” It is sensible habit, as time helps us to establish priorities and logically schedule activities.

However, I would NOT ask that question for a strategic initiative. As I’ll explain, dead lines are an idiomatic phrase and often simply hollow rhetoric. More importantly, I’ll describe a superior approach.

Dead Line is an Idiomatic Phrase

On a recent strategic initiative, a person translated the phrase dead line as “Death Line” and took it as a literal idea (not understanding that it is an idiomatic figure of speech.) He was puzzled why a software project involved death! Because strategic initiatives often cross national and cultural boundaries, we have to be especially careful about use of the English language.

This brings up an interesting bit of trivia for you history buffs. The word deadline entered the American lexicon in 1864 during its Civil War. If a prisoner crossed the deadline they were shot dead, no questions asked. Now THAT’s a dead line.

Take a look at the graphic on this page and notice the stakes in this drawing: that is the deadline.  The graphic is from the book, The Capture, The Prison Pen, and the Escape, by Captain William Worcester Glazier, published in 1870.  Thanks to John Bodner of Monroe, Michigan USA for sharing this with me.

The Dead Line is a Hollow Rhetorical Phrase

Many times people are told there are severe consequences of not meeting dates, or at least this is implied.  However, most people recognize the truth of this story:

A project team worked heroically – late nights and weekends – to meet a date for its deliverable. The submitted the deliverable, and nothing was done with it; it literally sat on the executive’s desk.  I had the opportunity to ask the executive about the imposed due date. This was his answer, “Oh, that date is my wife’s birthday.  I needed a date that I could remember.”  He was unaware of the efforts of the team to meet his arbitrary date.

So note this important learning,

most projects have due dates and not deadlines.

A Better Way to Discover Timing Expectations

Here is how an IT consulting company gained a rethinking about time. The company had a typical practice: its direct sales force would ask, “What the due date?” The customer would give an answer and the sales person would that date back to the project staff. Not surprisingly, the sales person explained that the client immediate results. However, the resources were not available and often the discussions became adversarial.

The strategic initiative involved building a better relationship with clients. Part of the effort included a training to think about dates and urgency differently, focused on approaching the client with a more collaborative perspective, asking these three questions:

  • What are your preferences for timing?  This is a good question that sets stakeholder expectations. The word preference suggests some degree of tradeoff. This helps to avoid giving the customer a false promise.
  • What is your sense of urgency?  This question is to determine how mission critical the project is to them to help us plan accordingly, if necessary, versus making any assumptions ourselves.
  • If there is a due date, how did you arrive at the due date?  This question helps to establish the strategic context from the client perspective.

These questions – along with probing for benefits – allowed the IT Company to gain a better working relationship with its clients.

Remember: Time is But One of Many Tradeoffs

I’m all for having a sense of urgency, as people do pay attention to the calendar and increase work efforts as near commitment dates. However, we need to remember that there are a number of variables that influence the delivery date. These variables include the following: amount and quality of resources applied, risk, decision quality, amount of functionality in the solution, performance of the solution. It is better to think of a project (or a program) as a design, where the optimal design involves tradeoffs.

The better approach is to start with the strategic objectives, identify your contributors, build buy in and understanding, and then gradually introduce the always-important subject of timing. For a deeper understanding of how to structure the roadmap, see this article on the Four Driving Questions for Strategic Initiatives.

Do you agree that it is better to gently probe about timing expectations? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

[Readers: I now have a new blog dedicated to strategic and strong-minded thinking competency. See:]

About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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1 Response to Don’t Ask About Deadlines and Due Dates

  1. Pingback: Seven Must-Do’s for Better Strategy Execution | Leading Strategic Initiatives

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