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What to do when your staff miss deadlines

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This week’s FTdynamo column allows Prof. Robert Austin of Harvard Business School a platform for airing his views that the way to treat staff who don’t meet deadlines is to tighten the timescales!


If employees consistently miss deadline and are over-stretched and stressed, the answer is not to give them more time but to impose even tougher deadlines. That, at least, is the view of Robert Austin, a professor at Harvard Business School.

Austin argues that setting deadlines that are almost patently unattainable keeps workers focused and stops them taking short cuts that might be potentially even more dangerous and costly than missing deadlines.

Austin takes software developers as a case in point in an article, “Effects of time pressure on quality in software development: an agency model”, in the journal Information Systems Research, published by the US-based Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.

As an example, Austin cites a manufacturing company where developers were working toward a deadline for installing software in a new plant. They realized that the software would be critical to plant operations and that failures would be expensive. But when the team ran late on the project, they chose a shortcut they knew would eventually crash the system – but only after their role became less obvious. They met their deadline – and a few months later the software failed exactly as anticipated. The resulting unplanned shutdown was more expensive than a delay in installation would have been.

One the other hand, developers who were concerned about quality but feared the career impact of missing individual task deadlines usually tried to reduce this risk via their deadline-setting policies. A common method involves adding slack to best estimates when setting deadlines to alleviate time pressures believed to encourage shortcuts.

According to Austin, this is not a good idea. He used game theory and an approach called an agency framework to model the problem. Agency situations arise whenever one person relies on another to do a job. The issue is one of control, because the developer or worker – in effect an agent – acts in ways that are not observable to the manager.

The author relied on a game set-up to identify the situations in which it is not to the agent’s advantage to take short cuts. The analysis yields a counter-intuitive message for management: choose deadline-setting policies so that unachievable deadlines are more, not less, likely. The rationale for this policy is that if missed deadlines are common then there is little stigma associated with missing deadlines and less incentive to take quality-damaging shortcuts.

As a rule of thumb to make all this work, Austin suggests:

  1. Add slack systematically to raw estimates to get corrected estimates that will be used in planning.
  2. Subtract time systematically from best estimates to arrive at deadlines that will serve as behavioral objectives for developers. Organizations can (and do) accomplish this separation of planning estimates and deadlines by the way they frame deadline-setting policies, for example depicting deadlines as stretch goals that few developers regularly meet.

Paradoxically, says the author, software developers who habitually miss deadlines may produce better long-term results than their apparently better managed counterparts who rarely miss deadlines.

There is an alternative approach to all this, of course: which is to say that managing by deadlines is doomed to failure in the first place. Faced with targets that are unrelated to the capacity of the system, people meet them the only way they can – by “cheating”. Rather than devising cleverer rules for gaming between principals and agents, a better route might be to abolish the games altogether.


FTdynamo features writings and opinions by leading people in the the world of work and business.

2 Responses

  1. Is this realistic in terms of motivation and mental health?
    In an era where employers are fast realising the damaging effect that poor working conditions and high levels of occupational stress can have on their brand, I wonder how this argument stacks up? I would suggest that an element of common sense needs to be injected here. Employers could do a lot worse that consistently set SMART but stretching targets.

  2. This was a silly theory when it was first proposed 20 years ago
    I’m still not sure whether Dr Austin’s paper is tongue-in-the-cheek. His comment that impossible deadlines produce bad software is spot on. But we’ve come up with better solutions than lying.

    Standard software projects nowadays usually have hard deadlines, but prioritized specifications. It’s called time-boxing. You must do all the essential tasks within the specified time, plus as many optional tasks as time permits. The skill lies in producing the best balance between quantity and quality.

    Experienced software developers always schedule their time by working backwards from the deadline. They know when the latest time is that they can start a task, and skip those that won’t fit.

    Dr Austin’s solution (before developers twigged his game) would simply produce fewer of the optional features. It is unlikely to improve quality, because quality is primarily laid down in the early stages of development: it can’t be added on at the end.

    I suspect that Dr Austin used his students as models for his ‘conscientious programmers’. Experienced developers don’t behave in the way he assumed.

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