Getting Things Done – (Part Three).
Project management guru, Chris Croft, has delivered workshops to all our Leadership Groups and amongst all his words of wisdom and brilliant ideas and methods there’s one thing in particular I now do as a consequence of appreciating why deadlines are so often missed.
Let’s imagine for a moment you’ve got a meeting in London in a few weeks. It’s at 2pm on a Thursday. What time would you set off?
I live 20 minutes from the nearest station and the trains take 55 minutes to get into either Victoria or Waterloo. I calculate my journey time as follows:
- 20 minutes drive to station, allow 35 minutes
- 55 minutes to London, allow 1 hour 10 mins for delays
- 12 minute tube journey, allow 20 minutes for escalators, ticket barriers and walk to exit
- 4 minute walk to meeting, allow 9 minutes to arrive 5 minutes early
Total contingency 43 minutes for an hour and a half journey, about 50%
Am I always on time? No, sometimes Southern Rail are even worse than usual and cancel every train with no notice. That’s why, if the appointment is truly important, I’ll travel even earlier and then find a coffee shop to work in when almost invariably, I arrive 1-2 hours early.
I share this thinking not to highlight how awful our transportation system is but to emphasise the importance of deadline planning. All too often, people plan for the best case. They imagine everything going exactly as it could (make that should in Switzerland, will in Japan), but in the UK that often isn’t the case. To be fair, this is frequently the fault of leaders. They push for the “best possible time” (and the best possible budget too but that’s for another four-i) mistakenly thinking that by stating the fastest time, their team will then strive to achieve it. In fact what happens, far too frequently, is the deadline becomes unachievable within a few days or sooner due to something out of control occurring and the task literally becomes “mission impossible”.
Some reading this might feel that my following suggestion is weak or will result in projects taking even longer but that’s not my experience. You see, I’ve come to adopt “flexible deadlines” as opposed to fixed ones. My start is to ask, “how long would this normally take?” Normal isn’t the best possible nor having built in every imaginable contingency, but what the average would be if the task was repeated many times. I then set a range by stating: “look, we both agree the best this can be done in is 14 days and that on average it will take 20 and worse case 24. How about we set 18 days from now as our desired deadline but have a backstop of 20?” The right people will jump for this. They can see that the deadline is both fair and normally achievable and then will go all out to beat it, perhaps to repay the reasonableness of the goal setting.
When it comes to external meetings that require travel I apply the same approach. I’ll say, “the journey should take 1 hour 45 minutes but you know how poor the trains are, would it be ok to meet between 2 and 2.30pm?” If the response is “no, I have another meeting at 3pm”, then I ask, “ok, how about if I’m early, could we start at 1.30 or 1.45?” Mostly people will agree to one or the other and hence I’m able to utilise my contingency even more effectively than time alone in a coffeeshop.
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