How to Manage Missed Project Deadlines

We all miss a project deadline now and then. Creative projects, like the subjects in Dr. Suess children’s books, come in all shapes and sizes. Some projects are small and can be accomplished by one person alone, like coming up with a slogan for a conference banner. Some are big and complex, like a national marketing campaign for a chain department store. More complex projects take months and require a syncopation only birds in flight have truly mastered.

All projects — big, small, short, and tall — have one thing in common: no matter how much project planning happened, there is always a risk of missing your project deadline.

All projects require some level of project planning. Whether this is writing something on a to-do post-it in the corner of your desk or utilizing capacity planning software, the fact is that to be functional you must plan. And, if your creative agency does use some type of project planning software (like Bric), it’s likely you’ve put a lot of thought into the importance of your project deadlines. Even with these softwares in place, project deadlines are still missed every day in the creative professional world.

It’s like a university registrar office. Semester after semester the registrar maps out each student’s schedule, syncs it with classroom availability, professor’s demands, and building capacities. Despite decades of experience, it’s not uncommon for schedules to come out late and with errors. Even the most tested systems create imperfect results.

Your clients are not college students. They won’t take broken promises lightly. But what do you do when you can’t make a project deadline?

Project planning + humans = missed project deadlines.

Some people dedicate their entire workday to sorting out the different intersections of project planning. Unfortunately, no matter how much thought goes into a project, this risk of not finishing the project on time remains. Even the oldest and most trusted project planning methods risk failure.

Why is this?

The project planning fallacy explains that no matter how hard humans try, it is our natural tendency to underestimate project plans. Hence this relatable tweet.

Hofstadter’s law is similar to the project planning fallacy, but takes it to the next level. Not only do humans have problems accomplishing simple tasks, like fixing the sink that’s been leaking for 6 months, they have a particularly difficult time with complex tasks, even when they know it is complex.

Let’s examine data-driven capacity planning in more depth to see how Hofstadter’s law works. Capacity planning is a method of project planning that attempts to balance maximums and minimums: How do you maximize the time employees spend on projects without burning them out? What is the minimum budget to create a beautiful project everyone is happy with?

Capacity planning softwares are centered around data. They collect data from past timesheets and project plans to estimate future planning. The end goal is being less wrong. Emphasis on less.

This is where Hofstadter’s law swoops in. Hofstadter’s law is often used in extreme programming, which in laymen’s terms is just high level computer science. For these programmers, even when they’ve used data to the best of their ability, even when they’ve given themselves what appears to be plenty of time, even when they’ve studied their methods and feel confident about finishing it on time, a certain percentage of their work still fails to get done on time.

It’s the same with project planning. The best capacity planning softwares can’t save you from everyday life: runny noses, lack of sleep, fire drills, writer’s block, screaming children, the nagging mother-in-law in your basement, etc.

Even with project planning tools in place, there is always a risk of not completing the task on time. Project planning is a proactive step to reduce the likelihood of asking for extensions on deadlines, but their are no guarantees. When you run into projects that need extensions, don’t panic. Understand your mistake, and ask for more time with confident ease.

What to tell your client when project deadlines needs an extension

You’re human, stuff happens. Don’t beat yourself up too long about the failure of your teams to plan with 100% accuracy. Understand, however, that “sorry” doesn’t cut it.

Alison Fragale, a business professor at the University of North Carolina, did a study examining the most courteous ways to tell someone you’re running late. What she found? You will earn respect if you are deferential and humble — but be careful to not become a repeat offender.

Here a few tips on how to ask for a project deadline extension:

  • Communicate. The first step in the project planning process is creating goals and objectives, and sharing them with the client and all members of the project planning team. The project is not just your agency’s project. It’s a collaboration between your company and the client. As soon as you know that a project is running behind, the client needs to know. The earlier you communicate the delay, the sooner the client can adjust around it.
  • Be specific. Give a reason for running behind, and don’t lie. The client knows when you’re avoiding the truth. If you’re are going to miss a project deadline because you should have hired another team member in the project planning process, then tell them. Even when the truth reflects poorly on you, honestly builds trust.  

Fragale states, “The mechanism that we find in our research is that when you lie to me, I don’t like the fact that you lied, but I appreciate the reason that you lied. And the reason that you lied is that you probably care about what I think about you. You would better preserve your relationship if you had just said traffic was really bad.”

  • Don’t offer compensation. Maybe you feel badly that the project is taking so long. That’s understandable, but you need to remain consistent and professional across all clients. Let’s remember some children’s books again … If You Give A Mouse A Cookie … he’s going to want everything you own.

Client relations, recommendations, and referrals are powerful tools for you creative agency. You’re #1 goal is to plan projects with accuracy using capacity planning softwares like Bric. If you fail, and the project deadline comes up sooner than expected, don’t sweat it. Take action ASAP. Hold your own. Keep working.