The high price of missed deadlines

Hard-and-fast due dates can influence allies, opponents, and even your own behavior -- which is why they're such a critical management tool, writes Business 2.0's management columnist.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer, Business 2.0 Magazine columnist

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Those who've been following the current congressional ruckus over the future of our military presence in Iraq know that it's turned partly into a discussion about deadlines.

One argument that has received a lot of attention posits that setting a withdrawal date would guarantee failure by causing enemy combatants to simply dig in and wait. That's one possible scenario, but the discussion ignores a lot of other outcomes that deadlines can influence -- and oversimplifies the critical role of deadlines as a management tool.

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Yes, deadlines can sometimes help your enemies plan their strategy. But they can also mobilize your allies to finally take action and accept responsibility when they recognize that you won't be providing cover indefinitely.

A brief example: In the mid-1990s, I was asked to take over executive education at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which had been facing declining applications and needed revitalization. But many of the changes I wanted to make -- such as offering instructors the same credit for teaching in the executive program that they get for helming a regular MBA class -- drew fierce resistance, even from some people who had recruited me to take the job.

So, after spending a year making as many changes as I could, I announced my intention to step down by the end of the second year. Over a lunch, the school's dean at the time, A. Michael Spence, pointed out that I had shown lousy political insight: Knowing when I would depart, he said, my opponents would simply wait it out.

"And then what?" I asked.

Suddenly it dawned on the dean that having made all kinds of promises to our advisory council and others about how we were going to fix the executive education program, he would be held accountable after I left. Soon I started receiving a lot more support from him and others to push forward with the plan. I made more progress as a so-called lame-duck administrator than I had during my entire first year at the helm.

Deadlines can also change an organization's behavior by creating a sense of urgency that's critical to accomplishing goals. Can you imagine how the pace of work accelerated at Apple (Charts, Fortune 500) after Steve Jobs announced in January that the iPhone would be released in June?

Software products would likely never hit the market without deadlines because developers would constantly be adding features or fixing bugs. Companies' financial reports might not ever be filed without SEC deadlines, since accountants can always find more things to check and double-check.

Finally, deadlines can even be useful in dealing with opponents. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling has pointed out, one of the problems in negotiations is convincing the other party that you're serious; otherwise, negotiations and disputes can drag out endlessly.

Setting a deadline can increase the credibility of commitments, which is why you see deadlines used so frequently in labor bargaining, where, absent a strike threat, there's little incentive to reach an agreement.

Bill Miller, a former chairman of the software pioneer Borland (Charts), was especially strict on product dates during the company's heyday in the mid-1990s, helping to prove that being on time with a less-than-perfect product was far more beneficial to the company than being late with a perfect one.

So although setting a deadline may help rivals plot strategy, it can also get allies to act, create a sense of urgency when you need it most, and possibly even convince opponents that you're serious. That's why astute managers use deadlines to get things done.

Business 2.0 columnist Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. Top of page

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