Are you Going to Miss that Deadline?

Missed deadlines do happen, and if you’re anything like me, they can affect the rest of your work.

I worry about letting down the project team. (A missed deadline can impact other people’s work and the overall schedule.) I worry folks will never want to work with me again. I worry that my whole professional career is a sham, and the only thing I’m really qualified to do is pick up roadside aluminum cans and trade them in for scrap metal.

Hopefully, you lack my innate ability to make a catastrophe out of everyday setbacks. But I do suspect a missed deadline causes most designers higher-than-normal stress. To counter the negativity and get back to work, I’ve developed a five-step strategy for handling missed deadlines like a pro:

1. Say due date

The objective here is to lower your stress so you can think objectively. Maybe you need to take 10 slow, deep breaths. Maybe blaring a little Black Sabbath calms you down.

2. Communicate with your team or client as early as possible

Missed due dates typically don’t come out of the blue at the last minute (unless it’s something you truly have no control over, like being hospitalized with pneumonia). For large projects especially, as soon as you have an inkling of an idea that the work is taking more time than you expected, speak up, and speak like the professional that you are and:

  • Identify the issue and how it impacts the schedule.
  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Keep the focus on the work.

3. Important: Keep the focus on the work

If you skipped Step 1 and are still feeling pretty stressed out, put special emphasis on that last bullet point: Keep the focus on the work.

Blaming someone else’s hiccup can be a tempting way to save a little face. (I get it. I’ve done it.) But blame never makes anyone look good, including the blamer, and most importantly, this information doesn’t help anyone keep the project moving forward.

The same thing goes for the information about why you didn’t get to all the work. Maybe you were too tired to work effectively because your dog barfed blood on your pillow at 2 a.m. and then you spent the rest of the night at the emergency veterinarian. Your colleagues care about you and your dog, and they understand. They’ve been there, too. Indeed, they might be feeling pretty exhausted right now because their child’s fever spiked or their sewer pipes backed up all over their newly refinished floors.

But in the context of collaborating with others to keep a project on track, none of that information helps anyone resolve the problem at hand.


4. If something about the work held you up, let people know

So what does it mean to identify the issue, offer specifics, and focus on the work? That depends on your inside knowledge of the project and the people, but here’s a rough example to illustrate what this communication might look like:

“I couldn’t get this design element to work, and because that’s a key part of the project vision, I spent an extra week researching and troubleshooting the solution. I think the result adds the value that the team was hoping to achieve, but that extra week of work wasn’t included in the schedule. This means I’m behind in developing other aspects of the site.”

Note that it’s totally okay — and often helpful — to point out issues that might help the team as a whole. For example, you might add:

“By the way, the problem with that design element was that the documentation has some holes. I thought I’d mention my solution in case someone else runs into a similar issue.”

5. Invite your boss, project manager, or client to offer input about the solution.

If you followed Step 2 and communicated the issue as early as possible, you’re more likely to have time to brainstorm possible solutions.

You also have time to give your boss, project manager, or client a chance to help you prioritize the project’s schedule, quality, and scope. Moreover, they may have information that you don’t, such as:

  • Extra money or resources to bring on another person.
  • The feature everyone thought was so important at the project kickoff meeting might no longer be as essential.
  • The project schedule could be moving out anyway.

The outcome isn’t always so rosy. Sometimes, I’m working until 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, hoping I can hit the target by 8 a.m. Monday. Overall, though, my strategy to communicate early and focus on recovery has worked well for me. I’ve been making and missing project due dates for over 15 years, and I’ve never had to pick up tin cans to get by. Good luck!

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