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We're working on an ongoing project.

We have internal deadlines like sprint but it's not a hard deadline.

Nothing will happen if we don't reach the internal goals.

The team is starting to get used to not finishing things within the deadline.

And I still can't find a way to simulate a hard deadline because it doesn't actually exist.

How can we simulate one to make team serious about getting projects finished?

What are the factors that make us successfully create internal deadlines?

Process, management, communication, people?

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    Completing deadlines "just because" is pretty much the definition of useless make-work. What's the actual problem that needs to be solved here? – Todd A. Jacobs Nov 19 '20 at 13:40
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    Why is this project being carried out if "Nothing will happen if we don't reach the internal goals"? – Ruaidhrí Primrose Nov 19 '20 at 13:41
  • Because our next steps are not very restricted by time. We can start to do it for 6 months until 1 year from now. – b.ben Nov 19 '20 at 14:16
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    Well except for legal stuff (and even there, there are exceptions) or life-saving matters, any deadline is basically virtual anyway, or at least as hard as you want it to be. I've seen teams working hard to finish a sprint, being able to demo what they'd said they would demo, even though it is just an internal deadline. And I've seen teams which couldn't care less about how hard a deadline was... – Laurent S. Nov 19 '20 at 14:42
  • @LaurentS. So for the second team isn't that the combination of management expectation and individual responsibility issue at the same time? – b.ben Nov 28 '20 at 23:58
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I'm sorry, but you are trying to solve the wrong problem. Your team isn't delivering much because your management has no expectations from them to do otherwise.

There is a saying in my country that literally translated means "As you teach them so you have them". Management taught this team that nothing happens if they don't deliver much, taught them that nothing happens if goals are missed, taught them that it's OK not to finish work. As you teach them so you have them.

I've seen this in every company I ever worked in. There are some high profile projects with strict deadlines, everyone works to the best of their abilities, there are stakeholder meetings, there are demos of the product being done, goals are set, work is managed to reach those goals, if deadlines are missed people notice and scramble to reorganize their work, etc.

And there are also some projects where everyone is just chilling. Management is so busy with the high profile projects that these other projects just fall through the cracks. If people keep quiet and avoid drawing attention to themselves, they can just fly under the radar indefinitely. Well, maybe not indefinitely, but quite some time. When management eventually notices, these projects get cancelled or hard deadlines are set or a lot of pressure is applied on the people to finish the work 'cause "what have you been doing all this time?". People leave or make a mess of things because the deadlines are unrealistic on the new schedule (would have been fine on the old schedule if people would have been working, but they weren't). So eventually, the projects get cancelled too.

Your problem isn't with the team, it's with management. Management needs to express their expectations, mention the consequences for not meeting them, collaborate with the team and get involved in actually managing this project. You can't impose hard deadlines (or simulate hard deadlines, as you say) but then keep looking the other way as things continue unfolding in the same manner.

Management needs to do its job from the start of the project, not just when there is a blip on the radar and then wonder "Where did this come from?". Spread your attention wider than the team. Everyone needs to get their s#it together, not just the team on the project.

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  1. If you're working on an ongoing effort, it isn't a project. Projects have delivery dates/completion dates, and the PM's job is to constantly maintain shared awareness on the completion date. If there are no completion dates, then there should be no PM.

  2. If there are no consequences to missed deadlines, then you've transcended the scarcity economy - if you live in a realm of infinite resources, then stop doing whatever it is you're doing and quickly tell the rest of us how to get there. If your project doesn't affect the company's bottom line or the enterprise's ability to deliver core values, the stop doing it. Less flippantly, what is the value of your activity to your enterprise and how does the missed deadline affect that value? Even if you're just maintaining software, failure to deliver new features or to buy down technical debt has an impact on the ability to survive for another quarter.

  3. Every dollar/hour/ iota of attention that is expended in pursuit of activity X could also be expended in pursuit of activity Y. Whatever you are doing is killing other projects; that is the nature of opportunity cost. If your team isn't delivering on schedule then they are consuming resources that could feed other projects and they're providing no value in return. Not a survival oriented strategy. Alternatively, every resource you're expending in your current activity could be spent on something more interesting, more challenging, more career advancing than what you're doing now. If the team can achieve the deadlines, then they have the negotiating power to reallocate some of those resources to doing something that is interesting enough to make meeting the deadlines attractive.

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I agree with others that you're trying to solve the wrong problem, although I do also understand why you reached for "fake deadline" as a tool. It sounds like the underlying problem you're trying to solve is "how can I get the team to generally finish work when they say they will."

One thing that has worked for me has been to explain to my team the importance of building up a "trust account" with our stakeholders, as motivation to deliver on time. It basically shows that we are reliable, we can consistently do what we said we would do. This is important because, one of these days, we're going to need to ask for something, maybe more resources, maybe an extended deadline. And if they have learned that we are unreliable and don't follow through, then they are not going to give us that extra resource, that longer deadline, that benefit of the doubt. So every time we do meet a deadline, we are actually building up that trust account that is going to help us, some day down the road.

Another approach that might help would be to bring the big picture of the ongoing project into the team's conversations. Presumably, the ongoing project is expected to be completed/delivered at some point in the future, that is on somebody's schedule. Presumably, every time you miss an internal deadline, you're eating contingency and/or setting yourselves up for a really awful "shit we have 6 months of work that needs done and only 3 months to do it in" period at the end. So make that visible, not just in one big talk but every time you plan the work for each internal deadline.

Sometimes managers hold too strongly to the "umbrella" theory of management: ie, their job is to be the umbrella that keeps shit from falling down on people's heads. There is definitely a need for some of this. But if it goes overboard, then people get trained to think of internal deadlines or reports or whatever as "typical pointy-haired bullshit, who cares". Whereas if you let them in on enough of the big picture that they can see how it will affect their lives, then they'll take it more seriously.

  • I definitely agree with this your approach of letting the team stand with the big picture. – b.ben Nov 25 '20 at 14:20
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One way to create a fake deadline that will be taken seriously, is to create an incentive to reach that "fictitious" deadline.

It could be a fun-day or a day off or a gift.

"If we finish/deliver X by this deadline then we'll have a team outing & picnic a week later." (Or: Everybody will get the latest kool gadget.)

This way you can practice meeting deadlines and discover what pitfalls you'll encounter when real deadlines loom.

You will also discover who are the team players and who is a hindrance.

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