Are you one of those people who like to remember lines from movies? No, I’m not talking to you Caddyshack people. I said movies-plural. I am definitely one of those people. I can recall some line that caught my attention from the even the most obscure movie; but I can’t remember what my wife tells me to get from the grocery store, and I only live a mile away. One movie line that I’ve always liked is from The Pirates of the Caribbean. During the whole picture the characters place great reverence on what they refer to as the “pirate rules” until the end of the movie when they break one of them to save Johnny Depp. A character sums up this dissonance by saying, “They’re not really rules. They’re more like guidelines.” Over the course of time I’ve found that this mode of thought has come to define the “establishment” of deadlines in today’s world.
Think about how many times the report that your counterpart promised to (and you were counting on) deliver to you on Friday never arrived. The shipment of material that just had to be there on Tuesday finally got there two days later. Slowly but surely, project schedules keep shifting as one date after another prove to be as certain Republican election predictions. And the worst part is, no one seems to concerned about this chain of events except your boss who seems to be tied to the antiquated notion that if you said you’d have it to him Wednesday that he’d receive it on Wednesday. Now I can’t pinpoint when due dates suddenly became more like suggestions, but I think it started with the cable companies. If they could make you miss a day of work on the hope that an installer might show up so you could watch HBO, then the importance of actually doing something when you said you would had no place to go but down.
Our own use (or misuse) of technology has further spurred this decrease in the integrity of a due date. Project management, a discipline that used to require regular meetings and published schedules too often consists of unacknowledged exchanges of emails and voice mails whose only effective purpose seem to be serving as CYA mechanisms when one party or the other—surprise—doesn’t deliver on schedule. So is there a relatively pain free and effective solution to this laissez faire attitude toward due dates? Fortunately, the answer is yes.
The first step is to eliminate “drive by” communications. An email or a phone call by itself isn’t going to get the job done. Emails can be missed or misinterpreted, so to rely on them as your sole method of communicating that “I need it by this date”, no matter how explicit you think you’ve been, is wishful thinking. Unless you follow up by telephone, and yes, actually speak with the email recipient to confirm that they understand what you expect of them, and by what date their efforts should be concluded, their missing the date falls on your shoulders and not theirs. While you may think that your written communication gives you an electronic “Get Out of Jail Free” card, it was you who actually did not make the effort to ensure your instructions were understood.
Before you devotees of the telephone break a wrist patting yourself on the back since you always deliver the information person to person, don’t forget that in this age of multi-tasking most people don’t write down the important points of their telephone conversations. So even though you told him or her you needed it on the 23rd, by the time they’ve hung up the phone, sent a tweet, checked their email and liked something on Facebook, the date you said is finally remembered and written down as the 25th. Establishing the due date by phone is great but without an email to confirm you’ve only done half the job.
Finally, it pays to check progress in advance. Think about it. Your mom didn’t start asking you if you’d packed your underwear two days before the trip for nothing. She wanted to make sure that she didn’t get a call from Grandma asking why she sent you without clean underwear. It’s the same principle with due dates. Don’t have the nerve to be surprised that someone misses their due date if you didn’t take the time to make sure they were on schedule in advance. This tactic is known by many names. I like to call it measure twice, cut once.
For all of us our schedules, projects, and even jobs typically depend on other people doing what they say the will when the say they will do it. Unfortunately, very often we deal with others who view the concept of the due date as a casual target rather than a firm stake in the ground. The failure to establish, and confirm dates via the proper combination of telephone and email in concert with advance nudging will only lead to you say arrrguh the next time someone tells you, “I thought you meant next Monday”.