Researchers devise new deadline trick: decide which deadlines are actually important

The project manager is given a deadline for completion and makes decisions around that, assuming that it will not change. But in reality, it often does.

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Some researchers from the University of Michigan got real with the nature of deadlines: they’re often more elastic than they seem.

“Our society tends to think of deadlines as less flexible than other aspects of a project, but in reality, that’s often not the case,” said Tom Logan, study co-author and a University of Michigan doctoral student in industrial and operations engineering, in a release. “When we recognize that, it enables us to do some really novel things.” The findings were published in the European Journal of Operational Research.


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In typical project management, the project manager is given a deadline for completion and makes decisions around that, assuming that it will not change. But in reality, it often does.

Optimistic versus pessimistic

With that in mind, they ran a series of experiments. The team built a computer model that cycled through 1,000 simulated projects, some which ignored deadline uncertainty and some which recognized it and re-allocated resources as necessary.

“A deadline is just another stakeholder requirement and we all know that stakeholder requirements hold a certain amount of uncertainty,” said study co-author Robert Bordley, a professor at University of Michigan College of Engineering. “We can’t eliminate that uncertainty, but we can often quantify it. And I’ve found that the value of doing that is very big.”

Managers should sit down with stakeholders and ask for more than just the “optimistic” and “pessimistic” dates for completion. They have to ask for the real reasoning behind those dates, so they know if and why they have flexibility on the deadlines.

“Stakeholders are always dealing with a complex set of uncertainties, but they are rarely shared with project managers. The goal is to bring the two worlds closer together and incorporate the knowledge that’s uncovered into the management process,” Bordley said. “I like to ask stakeholders to think of a situation that would cause a deadline to get pushed forward by a month, for example. Tell me about that situation, estimate how likely it is to happen. Focus on the extremes. That way, you end up with optimistic and pessimistic deadlines that are more than just numbers.”

Once a manager knows the optimistic and pessimistic deadlines, they must express their level of uncertainty with the deadline within the project. A more uncertain deadline means a larger window for completion and more flexibility to get work done and focus their energy on other requirements that are surer.

“This technique can save a manager from spending a lot of time and resources on a deadline that might not matter much in the end,” Bordley said. “If it’s soft, the manager can quickly see that it’s soft and focus resources on other requirements that are less likely to change.”

Meanwhile, new research from Harvard Business Review shows that men are twice as likely to ask for an extension on a deadline as women.

And if you just can’t deal with deadlines at all, CNBC lists 10 jobs that don’t really have them, including an audiologist, massage therapist, and conservationist.


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.