Deadlines or due dates are a part of business (and all) life. Some dates are critical, like events where we have 500 customers joining us for a webinar, or dates where the business can incur significant liability or penalty.

It’s important to know and share those dates.

Arbitrary deadline setting
However, we often give an item a specific, arbitrary due date, just to make sure it gets delivered. We decide we wish the thing could be done by a particular time, so we assign it a due date. Or, someone asks us to do something, and out of courtesy or support we want to give them an idea of when they can expect it, then we turn that ‘expected’ date into a deadline.

As humans, we set specific, arbitrary dates because we want to know or share that something is going to be completed, and

  • we think it will help us or others not procrastinate
  • we’re not accustomed to things being delivered regularly
  • we’re not used to asking for things to be done or sharing that things will be done in a general time frame
  • we’re not used to talking about the item we want done in relation to the prioritization of other valuable work

The arbitrary date behavior is most often left over from a time when delivery happened haphazardly and usually “late” compared to plans and promises. Once your team starts leveraging agile practices and delivering value every two weeks, the question can shift from ‘when can I have it’ to ‘in which quarter or sprint delivery should it be included’. That’s a subtle but powerful shift.

Delivering to value — versus delivering to date
Work frequently gets prioritized to due dates or deadlines, even when arbitrary. We put a date on everything, and lose track of which deadlines are real and which are arbitrary. Arbitrary deadlines detract from thinking about value delivery, from prioritizing based on overall customer and business value.

To deliver value more effectively, work to get rid of the practice of setting arbitrary due dates and instead encourage curiosity and discussion based on value:

  • Set deadlines or due dates only for the most critical dates. Share widely why they are critical; this clarity provides important systems perspective.
  • Encourage curiosity about value. Ask each other why it’s important to deliver that value at that specific time. Help others practice this specific behavior and reinforce that this questioning as a desire to understand value and cost of delay (vs pushback).
  • Encourage curiosity about prioritization even as we acknowledge “real” dates. Even if an item has a hard deadline, is it more important than something else? E.g. a regulation with a $200K annual penalty vs a marketable feature worth $60K/month?
  • Include time-sensitivity information in the feature or story definition, and be explicit about the time request. Example: As of today we believe we need this in Q3 so we can hit a Customer Giving Day in early Q4. We would love to have it at least two weeks before Q4 to give us the confidence that we’re ready.
  • Finally, hold regular discussions about priority and changes in priority—at every level of your business. Practice accepting new work into the system based on relative priority, and moving work out when you move work in, based on system capacity