Are deadlines really the enemy?
Scenario: you’re writing a proposal, and the funding agency (or client or sponsor) website says that the submission deadline is 5pm EDT Monday 31 August. But your project manager has said that your deadline is noon on Thursday 27 August. What the heck? Why do you have to complete it four days before it’s due? What if you really need the weekend to fine-tune the meat of the proposal? Can’t you give it to them at noon on Monday?
After a dozen or so years of working with scientists on grant applications and proposals, I’ve learned a great deal about the ways they work and their needs for time to make their great science look and sound great on paper. Having tried (and failed) several times to write grants myself, I know there is great art within that science, and so my mission as a project manager remains: enable the best possible science and more of it.
I’ve also learned, and hopefully have demonstrated, that there is method to the madness of setting deadlines for proposal projects. The method aligns with the mission – enabling the science – by making it possible for the proposal to actually be submitted. Which means that the funder deadline is not our deadline.
Deadline is actually a horrible word, when you consider its definition:
deadline (n): 1. A line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot. 2. a date or time before which something must be done.
It is no surprise then that deadlines rarely have the feel of incentive. But the modern use of the term seems odd – if I were a prisoner in such a prison, I would be staying as far away from the deadlines a possible, never mind meeting them.
Considering the quadruple constraint (scope-time-cost-quality), it’s also not surprising that deadlines quickly become a thing in projects – and a proposal is a project. Defining those boundaries is essential to planning and managing successfully. However, deadlines can quickly take over as being goal or objectives themselves, when really they are just another milestone – a point in the project to measure progress – only at the deadline milestone, estimate to completion should be zero. Milestones are tools for good project time management, but like any tool they only work well when applied appropriately. Part of using them appropriately is distinguishing between the real and the artificial.
Real deadlines are more often imposed by an external entity, such as the funder, but can also be internal to a department or institution. But, they are only real if they’re also firm – as in, there are real consequences for not meeting them. Real deadlines look like this:
They will also typically have specific scope and quality requirements, too. The above deadline requires that the complete proposal in the correct format with all the required elements is submitted BEFORE the deadline. These are as close to the original definition of deadline as we get in the research management world. Missing a real deadline can be pretty devastating.
Artificial deadlines are usually internal or self-imposed. They are more accurately called milestones, as they are (or should be) established within a timeline to enable all the participants to be able to do what is required to meet the real deadline. Unfortunately, because these are self-determined, they are often seen as more flexible and can be ignored or overruled if one part of the team falls behind schedule.
This is what I refer to as “the peril of the deadline extension”. Teams and leaders can very quickly undermine their plans and put their success at risk by extending internal deadlines. By allowing these internal milestones to be moved or circumvented, the project schedule closest to the real deadline becomes compressed, often to the point where success is now nearly impossible. Scope and quality are sacrificed to time, as the precious “last minute” becomes the last 30-seconds, giving insufficient time to deal with unforeseen hurdles.
There are a myriad of things that have to happen with a proposal to get it submitted, and while some sound trivial, they can be enormously time consuming. Converting a document to PDF should, in theory, take very little time and work the first time you do it. However, as anyone in science can appreciate, things that sound like they should work often don’t work out exactly right the first time (cell lines, anyone?).
There are more complex elements to proposal completion as well, such as: aligning other proposal pieces (budget, team description, management plan) to the aims; confirming references and citations in the proposal are correct (and in the correct order and format; checking page and character limits. Many of these things are done in parallel with the main proposal writing, but they must be re-confirmed prior to submission. Since everything else in the proposal links to the science piece, nothing else can be completed until that is done.
And so the proposal deadline becomes a few days to a week in advance of the funder deadline. The project manager sets this deadline to minimize the risk that the submission will be unsuccessful due some kind of administrative issue. Believe or not, the deadlines and milestones are not set to be maximally inconvenient – they are set to maximize the chances of a successful submission.
There is an intrinsic benefit to these internal milestones as well. Without a boundary for time, teams and writers can sometimes get stuck in analysis paralysis – the project stops moving forward while the team analyses all the possible angles and options. This endless rumination (“we should all go away and think about how best to do this”) will happen without some firm date by which decisions must be made and things completed. By ensuring that necessary decisions get made in a timely manner, all elements of the project can proceed towards completion.
A recent piece that I read brought up some interesting points about deadlines. This author asserts that there are two challenges with deadlines: they force decisions to happen within a given timeframe, sacrificing quality to time and they create a disincentive to revisit a process or project once it’s completed, as people will have “project fatigue” from having worked within a challenging timeline, and be unwilling to look at it again once it’s done. While these challenges are likely when deadlines are arbitrary or poorly planned, well-placed project milestones can encourage LEAN thinking by making time a key element in the project, and they can encourage more thorough risk assessment in project planning and better break-testing and change management processes in project implementation so that returns to the past don’t happen but continuous improvement does.
So deadlines are not the enemy – poor project planning and time management is. Well planned and placed milestones enable projects to be successful by ensuring that the project team keeps track of what they’re doing, where they’re at, and what the true project objectives are. Meeting the deadline is not an objective. Completing the project successfully – the full scope of work to the required quality within the time allowed without breaking the bank – is the goal.
Don’t believe me? Check out what NIH has to say: first-time applications (i.e. not re-submissions) submitted ON the due date are TWO TO FOUR TIMES more likely to ultimately miss the submission deadline than those submitted one week ahead of the deadline.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.