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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

You Can Deliver Late

You Can Deliver Late post image

It is a problem that never really goes away. You build your app and at the beginning everything seems to be as planned. Suddenly you realize you are late. For the sake of this post it doesn’t really matter whether late means 6 more months in 18-month long project or a day in a week-long sprint. Either way you realize you won’t make it.

Then, people go crazy.

Depending on team’s maturity you will notice a range of different behaviors. Anything from cutting corners on quality (“we have this buffer here we can use – it is called functional testing”), through abandoning best practices (“maybe we hit the window if we skip writing unit tests”), cheating client (“let’s deploy and we’ll be building the rest while they’re testing”), throwing features out (“oh, they are just saying it is crucial, they’ll manage without this feature and otherwise we won’t make it by the deadline”), to working team’s butts off beyond any limits (“hey guys, I know it’s the fifth weekend in a row, but we need to finish it and we aren’t anywhere close”).

I have a question for you: how often do you consider being late as a viable option?

My wild-ass guess answer: way too rarely.

I mean, how many times in your life have you worked on a system that really had a deadline written in the stone? How many times there would be deadly serious consequences for your users and/or clients if you were late. Not tragically, hopelessly, beyond-any-recovery late, but simply late. Like a day every couple of weeks or a month every year.

Personally I worked on such project only once. We were adjusting ERP system to new law after Poland joined EU. Deadline: May 1, 2004.

Guess what. We were late. A week. And then, like hours after we released we found a bug which basically got medieval on the database. Almost another week to publish a hotfix that made the software usable again. And you know what? Nothing happened. The sun rose again, the moon was there at night, we didn’t lose our jobs, and our clients didn’t lose theirs. It was OK.

It was OK, even though we missed the deadline that actually was written in the stone.

Well, if we missed it by a couple of months we would probably be out of business but still, a couple of weeks were sort of acceptable.

You can miss your deadlines too. They aren’t going to kill you for that I guess. And yes, I am well aware that being a supervisor of a dozen project teams it is unlikely that I am expected to state such opinions so openly.

Yet still I believe that the price we pay for being on time when it can’t happen on reasonable terms more often than not is bigger than any value we might get by hitting the window. And talking about price I think about dollars, euros or whatever currency is on your paycheck. Actually most of the time we pay for decisions mentioned at the beginning of this post long way after the deadline passed. We pay in maintenance cost, we pay in discouraged users that can’t really use the app, and we pay in burned-out teams.

So next time you’re going to make your call, consider this: you can be late. Even more, most of the time, being late is fairly OK.

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in: project management

8 comments… add one

  • Mr T. April 24, 2012, 3:42 pm

    Interesting point of view. Did your managers read this text ?

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 25, 2012, 12:59 am

    @Mr T – I sure hope they did. But more importantly I hope my teams would read that.

  • André Heijstek April 25, 2012, 4:11 am

    I typically call this “we never have time to do it well, but we always have time to do it over”.

  • Ron @ EDM Machines April 25, 2012, 2:45 pm

    You can plan all you want but you can’t plan for everything no matter the project. Its how you handle it and rectify the situation that makes you or your company or even your family and friends great in the situation.

  • Sam Barnes May 6, 2012, 6:44 am

    Very interesting indeed and a philosphy I’ve used personally to maintain my sanity when things are tough – however, not one I’ve used publicly with any project team…

    I know this is the reality, and in the past I have used this approach with clients when asking for deadlines or explaining that we’re late. When pressed many will admit that missing the deadline will not result in company meltdown and the quality is ultimately the important thing.

    But, as a Project Manager, I would fear the effects of me communicating this to my team/s. Maybe you will argue that I don’t have the right team, but if I said it was ok to be late I think people would take their foot off the gas and slow right down, some even bordering on taking the piss – and I think this is true for the majority of teams out there.

    I would see it as my job to push my team as hard as I can to meet any deadline given so long as I was constantly mindful of the product quality and team state of mind – if the deadline started to effect either then it would be time for me to have the “late” conversation with my superiors.

    I would want to explain to them all of the above and hope they agree to extend the deadline or understand the potential consequences of maintaining the pressure. If they didn’t agree I would tell the team I tried buy no joy so we need to press on (of course I would continue to try and win while we pressed on), if they agreed, then I would releive the pressure on the team with news of the extension.

    Writing this it feels like an easy comeback to say that I don’t therfore trust my team, or we have the wrong people, but I would disagree and say that the bigger group of human beings you have means human nature wins through, and telling people that being late is ok will surely mean some stop working as hard as they could, thus disrespecting those who are mature enough to work the same no matter what?

    I’d be very interested to hear why you wanted your team rather than managers to read this post… it seems like the kind of post that can be amazingly useful to one team, and potetially destructive to another, but the kind of post every single demanding manager should read.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 6, 2012, 9:15 am

    @Sam – First of all, I believe I’ve never said: “You just can be late. Period.” My point here is that when project is already late a pressure on being back on time never comes for free. What more, pretty rarely trade-offs we make for being before the deadline aren’t made consciously.

    I believe that decision-makers, given the full knowledge about the project would agree to violate the deadlines far more often than they do. However, our work is so vague that we often base on guesses and not on hard rock information. And even when we have the data decision-makers rarely believe in it.

    This is the clue, and you were right with your predictions that I will boil it down to trust issue. If you trusted the team and your superiors trusted you should there be any problem with accepting the fact that you were late and something had to be done (I mean something more than push harder)?

    I don’t say that agreeing on being late is always a way to go. Sometimes, for whatever reasons, we want to be on time even though the deadline isn’t written in the stone. That’s fine. But in this case let not make this sole team’s responsibility. If you do they will deliver… something. Problem is you won’t know how complete and of what quality it is as team members will be making a lot of small everyday trade-offs to make it on time. Unfortunately with no support and no guidance from above these trade-offs will be rather random.

    Pretending that there’s no elephant in the room won’t make it disappear. By the way: how many professionals out there worked on a project that was late? I guess the answer is very, very close to 100%. Now, how many of them faced serious consequences for delivering late? I mean being fired or seeing a company going out of business or losing the client completely etc. Again, my guess would be that very few. I can see a pattern here…

    Regarding why I’d like my teams to read this piece, it’s simple. If such discussion starts it is always initiated down there – in the teams. Decision-makers/stakeholders never initiate such dispute. I’d love to know that each and every of my teams is able to start such discussion, no matter the outcome, instead of just accepting all the pressure from the top. I saw too many teams that ended up totally burnt out because they didn’t start such discussion early enough.

  • Rich F May 6, 2012, 9:49 am

    Great article. Out of the 3 key project constraints (time, cost, quality), it’s the one that people freak out about the most, but in the long term, it’s the one that people forget about the quickest.

    People remember poor quality, but they forget late. But what I don’t get is that it’s kind of taboo to even suggest this as a valid course of action. Working, as I do, for a 3rd party supplier, there is a real resistance to accepting this as a reality in projects – the client will be p*ssed off, we’ll lose the business etc. – but it’s never as bad as people think it will be!

  • Sam Barnes May 6, 2012, 2:46 pm

    @Pawel, I completely agree that stakeholders and management would be happier about missed deadlines if they fully understood the costs of trying to hit them, unfortunately few seem willing to have this conversation.

    Trust is always an issue in these situations. Without it some believe deadlines are being missed due to some kind of flaw, as opposed to the simple nature of development and estimates – which is a shame.

    You’re again right, choosing to deliver no matter what always results in some kind of trade-off, and often the sacrifice made isn’t realised until later down the road.

    You’re reasons for wanting y0ur teams to read this makes perfect sense and this kind of empowering attitude based on maturity and honesty is exactly the reason I follow all of your posts. I wish more managers would read it and understand the underlying benefits of honest discussion from everyone in an organisation where the first assumption is that everyone means well, rather than the all too often one that something has gone wrong and it’s someones fault.

    Teams who don’t feel they can speak up, or when they do are silenced quickly always suffer morale issues and don’t feel part of the overall goals, just simply robots.

    On a personal level I actually remind myself that the absolute worse case sceanrio is that by missing a deadline or speaking up / saying the thing that most are to afraid to say, the worst that can happen is that I’ll need to find a new job – never happened and unlikely to, but, in the grand scheme of life’s challenges it puts things into perspective for me when I’m in a tricky spot – also, if that happened, I’m better off with a different employer anyway!

    Better to be 100% honest and strong willed than anything else, if anything I get a positive reaction to this approach pretty much all the time.

    Keep the articles coming, love the no bullshit tone of them! :)

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