Author Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” 

The fear of missing deadlines hangs heavy over project managers across all industries — and it happens more often than you might think. According to the Project Management Institute, 48% of projects don’t finish on time due to factors like unrealistic timelines, unclear expectations, and poor time management. 

Instead of falling victim to the natural panic and stress that sets in when a deadline is missed, take control and get your project back on track. In this article we’ll explore the top reasons missed deadlines occur and the necessary steps to mitigate the effects. We’ll also show you a few ways to ensure the same issues don’t arise in the future.

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Why do missed deadlines happen? 

The first step in preventing missed deadlines is to understand why they occur in the first place. 

Unrealistic planning

From simple tasks to complex projects, it’s easy to miss the mark on actual timelines for completing something — this is called the “planning fallacy.” Coined in 1977 by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the concept describes our tendency as humans to underestimate how long it takes to complete a task, as well as the risks associated with that task, thanks to optimism bias. 

Unclear expectations

As a team leader, you may be under the impression that your team understands their deadline — but if the communication isn’t clear, they might not be on the same page. For example, you could ask for a task to be completed by Thursday, but your team member says there may be issues that need to be corrected and may not be able to complete the task until Monday. You tell them to only worry about critical corrections and that you need it completed by Friday at the latest. 

Based on the conversation, the team member now believes they have until Friday — unless critical errors occur, leading to a Monday deadline in their mind. 

Poor time management

A workday may officially be eight hours long, but research suggests that actual productivity time is much less than that. In fact, studies show the average employee is only productive for around three hours a day, leaving a lot of room for missed deadlines. 

How to reduce the effects of missed deadlines  

Now that you know what caused your missed deadline, it’s time to take a breath and figure out how to mitigate the impact. 

1. Understand the implications

First, take a moment to understand what the missed deadline actually means for your project. If you have a little wiggle room in your schedule that allows your team to catch up without missing any major deliverables, you might not need to take any action. You can continue to monitor the project process and prevent any future missed deadlines as much as possible. 

Ask the following questions to understand the impact: 

  • Was this task so critical that it delayed the entire project? 
  • How many other tasks are impacted by this delay? 
  • Are any deliverables going to be missed? 
  • Did this delay cause any new conflicts or risks? 

If you find after assessing the situation that more course correction is needed, move to the following steps. 

2. Determine your options 

You have a few options to choose from in order to mitigate the issues the missed deadline caused. First, consider compressing your schedule to make up for lost time. A few ways to do this include: 

  • Fast-tracking: Move up start dates for tasks to begin before the initial task is complete. For example, if you’re working on a social media campaign for a company, you may have to start reviewing bits and pieces as they’re finished instead of waiting for it to be completed in its entirety. 
  • Crashing: Bring in extra team members to work on certain tasks to speed up the process. Have them simultaneously work on different areas to complete it faster. 

If compressing schedules doesn’t work for your project, consider your other options. You can either remove certain deliverables or features of the project to reduce the scope, lower quality assurance requirements to shorten the timeline, or keep the project going as-is and accept that your deadline is later. 

3. Plan your resolution

Once you’ve determined what the options are for your project, identify the solution and create a plan. Ask your team the following questions: 

  • Which of these options will best help us recover? 
  • What tasks need to be added to the schedule to carry out the recommended course of action? 
  • Will there be any remaining impacts after carrying out our resolution plan? 
  • Are there any new risks to monitor?
  • Do we need approval from customers or other stakeholders? 

4. Communicate to stakeholders

Don’t wait until it’s too late to communicate to your stakeholders that a deadline was missed. Holding off could hurt your credibility as they might feel like you’re hiding information from them. Still, make sure you have a plan of action in place before delivering the bad news — which is why completing the three steps above before you reach out to them is critical. 

Make sure to notify every impacted stakeholder about the delay and your resolution plan, including team members, customers, and any vendors associated with the project. Take responsibility without making excuses or laying blame. Focus on how you’re moving forward and emphasize that you have a solution. 

5. Learn from the mistake

As soon as a deadline is missed, avoid focusing on what went wrong immediately, and instead prioritize planning and getting back on track. Once the resolution is underway, you can then analyze why the problem occurred so you can prevent the issue from popping up in the future. 

Use the missed deadline as a learning opportunity for your team. Refer to the three common causes listed above and consider which one occurred. Then you can take the appropriate steps to correct the problem, whether it’s implementing more realistic timelines, better communication strategies, or time management solutions. 

Once the core issue and plan of action has been addressed, communicate to other project teams about what happened and what solutions you put in place so others can learn from the incident as well. 

How to prevent missed deadlines

To prevent missed deadlines, it’s important to understand that increased micromanagement or implementing a brute-force productivity policy won’t get the job done. Instead you need to  consider the underlying issues so your team can hit their due dates without feeling overwhelmed or experiencing burnout. 

Clarify priorities 

Setting clear priorities communicates to your team what’s most important so they can complete critical tasks before moving on to other assignments. When your team has a lot on their plate and can’t get it all done quickly, scrambling to finish everything on time isn’t always the best route. Instead, determine if you can move due dates for lower priority tasks or delegate them to someone else. 

Make deadlines matter

Make sure your team understands why you landed on specific due dates so they have the right context and motivation to complete the work. If there’s no purpose attached to the deadline, employees won’t feel as much pressure to meet them — and they could eventually start disregarding them entirely. 

Understand dependencies

A project dependency is a task that relies on the completion of another task. When planning out your timeline, communicate the dependencies to your team so they can make sure the tasks are completed in the correct order to ensure there are no bottlenecks that derail the project. 

Reduce distractions

Distractions run rampant in today’s work environment — from emails to unnecessary meetings, the work day can be eaten up in various ways that don’t include actual work. Here are a few tips for eliminating distractions and improving focus that you can encourage your team to use:

  • Activate do-not-disturb settings for communication apps during heavy work times. 
  • Place phones out of sight to avoid the temptation to check notifications. 
  • Schedule calendar blocks for focused work. 
  • Conduct a meeting audit to prevent unnecessary meetings and make room for focus time. 

Try time management strategies

If your team struggles with procrastination, they’re more likely to miss deadlines. Encourage them to try different time management strategies to stay on task. Take a look at our article on time management to learn more about the different strategies your team can implement. 

Don’t let missed deadlines derail your entire project. By implementing the above steps and strategies for prevention, you’ll have a better chance to move forward, proactively deal with the issue, and minimize the overall impact. 

And if you need a little help, Harvest provides visibility into the key aspects of your projects, enabling you to keep everything on time and on budget. Get started with a free trial today