Deadlines Spur Actions – The Final Countdown

‘The deadline is the greatest invention of western civilisation’

Over the course of the last couple of months, our blog has featured articles that have focused on quality and speed in software development and the methods available to improve these factors. In last month’s article on quality practices at Zircon, there was a brief examination into the effectiveness of implementing the practice of holding daily stand up meetings. For the purposes of the article, the focus was on how these meetings can drastically improve communication across teams, but there is a second benefit – the introduction of a deadline.

In Western culture, time is often viewed as linear with a clearly defined start and end point. For this reason, time is considered to be a resource, of which there is a limited supply, and as such should be allocated in an effective and conservative manner, which is why many of us structure our lives through numerous milestones and deadlines. Individuals who continuously fail to meet these milestones are quickly identified and interpreted as having a poor work ethic or incompetent.

The natural desire to preserve appearances, in most cases, will overrule the habit to put off completing a task and increase the motivation of individuals to fulfil their promises. The strength of this desire only increases when a larger group of people will be present to hear the admittance of failure, and it is this that can make a daily stand up meeting so effective. By having the project manager (or SCRUM master) take more of a back seat, individuals have no blanket to hide behind and must take full responsibility for their actions.

It is clear to see that deadlines undeniably spur actions, but is it possible to make them even more effective?

Research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that measuring time in smaller increments has the effect of making future events appear closer and as a result more urgent. Any form of development work can span a number of months or in some cases years, and in this timeframe, there will be a series of tasks and activities to complete. However, it is all too easy to be blindsided by the false sense of security a faraway deadline can create and fall into the vicious cycle of putting off seemingly trivial tasks to a later date.

According to the study by giving each phase a timer in days rather than focusing on the overall end date, individuals will ‘feel more connected to their future selves’. Which may help to prioritise future rewards (not having to deal with the stress of a last minute activity pile up) over present-day rewards (having a reprieve from completing tedious and unenjoyable tasks).

These findings provide an explanation as to why certain agile methods such as SCRUM can be so effective. By breaking the development into short 2-4 week sprints alongside implementing daily stand up meetings, you can generate a maintainable level of urgency that minimises the possibility of team members delaying certain tasks.

As with most aspects of our daily lives the phrase ‘too much of anything is good for nothing’ must be taken into consideration. One must be careful not to fall into the trap of setting deadlines for deadlines sake, as doing so will result in one of two potential outcomes:

  1. Members of staff begin to rush to hit their deadlines and as a result begin to omit seemingly trivial tasks or cut corners in order to do so
  2. Or go into slow motion when they realise that they are being taken for a fool and that there will be no consequence for failing to finish on time.

Despite the risks that surround the practice of implementing ‘false’ deadlines, in certain situations they can prove to be useful. A prime example of such a situation are those individuals that take multiple iterations for their work to turn out correctly. By imposing an earlier deadline, you can ensure that the desired outcome is achieved in time for the ‘real’ deadline. Yet, if considering such action, it is wise to remember that if there are no consequences for being late; work will almost certainly be late again next time.

Here at Zircon we recognise and understand how important deadlines are for many of our client’s, which is one of the reasons why we implement ongoing quality processes. By utilising the daily stand-up meeting, it is possible for us to be aware of how a project is progressing and if there are any areas that could influence the final delivery. On top of this by implementing almost daily deadlines, we can avoid slightly underhand tactics like imposing false deadlines.