what to do when your team is missing deadlines

Most teams miss a deadline now and then. But if people on your team are regularly blowing deadlines, there’s a problem that you need to address – before it causes work to blow up too.

Fixing a deadline problem means first figuring out what’s causing the problem. Here are six of the most common reasons staff members miss deadlines, along with the fix for each.

1. You’re not giving a clear deadline at the outset. Sometimes this is because you think you’re giving a clear deadline, but in reality you’re just suggesting a timeframe. Keep in mind that “It would be great to get this back by Tuesday” doesn’t actually convey “I need this back by Tuesday.”

The fix: Always give a clear deadline when you first assign the work. And don’t suggest when you’d like the work back; make it clear that it’s a firm deadline. Use language like, “Please have this turned in by Tuesday morning.”

2. You don’t hold people accountable for missing deadlines, so people don’t take deadlines seriously.

The fix: When someone misses a deadline, the way you create accountability is by talking about it. You don’t need to scream and yell (and in fact shouldn’t), but you do need to have a conversation. Asking what happened lets people know that you’re noticing, you’re concerned, and it’s important. (Just as saying nothing communicates that it wasn’t important.)

3. You’re not being realistic about long it will take your staff to complete projects.

The fix: Talk to your staff about what realistic timelines look like for them and why. You might get information that changes your mind about what’s reasonable to expect, or you might realize that the reason it’s taking them longer than they should is because they need more guidance from you on how to do a piece of the work more quickly importantly. (Or you might realize that a team member isn’t performing at the level you need. More on that in #6.)

4. Your staff is disorganized and lacks a system for tracking deadlines, so things fall through the cracks.

The fix: Talk to the staff members who have been missing deadlines. Be direct about the problem and be clear that it needs to stop. You might also investigate how they’ve been tracking their deadlines. Do they have a system, or are they relying on memory? If the latter, have them implement a system for tracking work and deadlines – and hold them to it.

5. Something else is getting in the way; there’s a bottleneck somewhere in the process.

The fix: Ask the staff members who have been missing deadlines why it’s happening. You might get additional insight into what’s causing it that you wouldn’t have known on your own. For instance, you might learn that Jane needs to sign off on work before it comes to you but she’s often not available or doesn’t move quickly enough, or that another department often delays the process. Or you might simply learn that your staff member is overwhelmed, and then can address that.

6. There’s a performance problem on your staff that you need to address.

The fix: If someone is regularly missing deadlines after you’ve tried #4 above, it’s time to treat it as a serious performance problem. Explain that their role requires reliably meeting deadlines, and give them a timeline to get the problem under control.

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. FX-ensis*

    The cause of this should be examined.

    If it’s due to poor training, this can be fixed. if it’s due to poor resources (,e.g. a lack of funds, or not enough equipment) this also can be altered.

    It could also be poorly communicated deadlines and/or expectations, or the team members simply don’t hold the skills/competences to perform well.

  2. Felicia*

    In my last internship, no one in the company ever met deadlines. This was mostly because the deadlines were humanly impossible, and the people setting them had never done the work and didn’t have realistic knowledge of how long it takes (though they insisted they did). If out of 20 people, all 20 are saying the deadlines are unreasonable, then it’s the person setting the deadlines who is the problem.

  3. Anon For This*

    This is really timely. My team is struggling with this and two other teams we had collaborated with on projects last year have politely refused to work with us again due to feeling like they had to pick up tons of slack from us. It’s mortifying, and I think a major issue is that our team lead just doesn’t think missed deadlines are a big deal. She tends to fly by the seat of her pants and operate with a “we’ll figure it out when we get to it” mentality. Even though many of my teammates try to plan and plan ahead so that everything gets done, when there are wrenches thrown at the last minute and when every decision needs to go through about 50 layers of approval, of course nothing gets done on time.

      1. Anon For This*

        Well, there are benefits. When a great opportunity comes along, she is almost always game to at least try to see if we can make it happen. If we need to alter deadlines or come up with an alternate approach to something, she is usually game. There are benefits to flexibility, but I think to be effective you need to balance it with realism–about time, budget, resources, etc., and that doesn’t always/often happen in our work.

  4. Dan*

    Another thing to keep in mind is that missing deadlines should *not* be a last a minute surprise. You should have milestones along the way to make sure things are on track.

    If your team has a habit of missing deadlines, do *NOT* accept “everything’s going great” as a status check-in. Demand to see actual progress.

    In my work, I really don’t have deadlines. I also don’t want to be accused of slacking off, so every week or so when I meet with my boss, I make a point of having *something* to show and discuss.

    1. E.R*

      Ugh, this is painful to hear, because it’s so obvious to me but apparently not to the manager I was working with. I kept checking in with him about how a reserach project was going, becuase I was waiting upon the results so i could start my own work (and i have a very fixed deadline, two months after the results are finalized) . He kept saying “oh yeah, its on track! (Researcher) told me its going great!”. Come the deadline, it’s nowhere near done, and he is picking up the slack. Cuts my own work time in HALF. I’m super stressed. I could have asked to see the progress myself, but I don’t work in research, so it wouldn’t have made much sense to me along the way and I don’t have the authority to talk with the researcher about her (ahem) total lack of work ethic and communication.

      1. OriginalYup*

        I hate having to play CSI like that.

        “It’s on track! Everything is going great!”
        “Are the tables complete?”
        “Well, no.”
        “Is the analysis done?”
        “Not yet.”
        “Do you have a draft?”
        “Sort of.
        “I’m going to explain what ‘on track,’ ‘everything,’ and ‘great’ mean. Please note carefully for future.”

        1. ClaireS*

          That is an awful position to be in. If I were a manager I’d be working hard to train my staff on how to communicate progress appropriately. Part of that is making it ok for staff to come forward with challenges. My manager is excellent at this.

      2. Christine*

        I’ve been in this situation before…not with my boss, but collaborating on a project where I have the last step before a deadline that cannot move, and having time creep from other steps eat into my timeline and kill me (or worse, get me blamed because *I* was not on time!

        The only thing that helped was forcing project managers to manage projects…that meant having a clear timetable with incremental deliverables and check-ins scheduled for each group’s piece, and a reasonable amount of “fluff” time for each group that was clearly identified (target deadline and drop-dead deadline…you have to report if you’re not on target but you’re not late unless you miss the drop dead). If the overall project is late, the project manager will know that it’s because the designers took 4 weeks instead of 2 to complete the design in Step 1, so it doesn’t look like Production missed the boat when they have 1 day instead of 2 weeks to get their piece done in Step 27.

      3. Jenna*

        I worked customer service for a manufacturer long ago. I needed to know how many machines were going to ship. There was ALWAYS a crunch on the last day of the month, and the production manager was ALWAYS so chipper and upbeat, “Oh yeah! They will all be ready!”
        No. They were never all ready.
        All the trucking companies had to be called by 1:00 to schedule the pickups.
        I had to type, on a typewriter, all the bills of lading to get all the machines that were actually shipping onto trucks. It had to be all typed(TYPED! BLERGH!) by 4:00.
        (That doesn’t sound like much does it? But I was also answering phones, entering orders, marking things as shipped…)
        I had to learn that he always lied. That the higher level bosses would never even notice let alone care. That to get the information that I needed I had to go, physically, to the back of the building and see what machines they were actually crating to leave….
        Oh, I hated that production manager.
        If this were a current problem I’d be writing in to see what I could actually do. As it is, that job and the problems there are already in my rear view mirror.

  5. GMA*

    Does anybody have any feedback on how to deal with a manager that just doesn’t seem to care that deadlines are met/not met? I have a couple of coworkers who are constantly late delivering their quarterly reports. Because of this, the analyst that builds the larger report for senior management can’t make his deadlines. My manager just doesn’t seem to care. However, these very same coworkers can get their weekly reports in on time, because they have to be delivered to our Sr Mgr directly. I’ve brought this up to our manager, and she says that she will take care of it, but honestly nothing has changed in 5 years. I feel like these two women think that they can be discourteous to people beneath them, when they wouldn’t dream of acting that way with the big boss. All of us (other than the analyst) are at a Sr. Director level. The analyst comes to me every quarter stressed out because they keep making him miss his deadlines.

    1. FX-ensis*

      Hmm….It’s seems like a difficult scenario. But it’s possible your immediate manager is not and cannot be impacted by the lateness, and it would be dangerous to go above your manager’s head and speak with your senior manager about this.

      I think you may have to hang in there, or potentially find another job. It may not seem ideal, but then there possibly isn’t much more you can do.

    2. Jillociraptor*

      Sometimes the consequences of failing to manage your people to deadlines don’t fall to you, which makes it easy to be less diligent. It sounds like that might be happening here, if the analyst is coming to you. Is it possible to just send the analyst to your manager, with a note that the deadline issues with your colleagues are still occurring? The manager may still not care but now the problem’s in her inbox instead of yours.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      The analyst needs to go to his manager. If you are his boss, then the two of you could go to your boss and request that the three of you make an action plan together. Sometimes two voices saying the same thing helps.

  6. Former Professional Computer Geek*

    I used to work with a group that put out software releases twice a year. The first one was always scheduled for May – but due to a mishmash of problems, rarely got out the door before July. I would call it the “May or May Not Release.” The programmers all got grumpy at me for that, but I don’t think in the years I had that job it ever actually went out in May.

  7. Z*

    Ugh, this is me. The missing deadlines part, I mean. First job as a software engineer, and I’ve missed every deadline I’ve been handed since I began about three months ago.

    The boss keeps handing me assignments that turn out to be rabbitholes! This last one took four weeks instead of his planned *three days*, and it still hasn’t passed QA.

    For this other thing I’m working on, I’ve had to get the senior dev’s help (he’s kind of a mentor), and even he struggles with it! I’m the only junior member on this team of twelve where most people have been here at least a year and have at least five years of experience. There’s a constant gap between deadlines reasonable for a fresh-faced grad and a semi-experienced to very experienced developer at my job who knows the app top to bottom.

    Still haven’t figured out how to convey this to the boss without sounding like an incompetent crybaby. Open to suggestions. . . .

    1. bad at online naming*

      If it makes you feel any better, my very first sizable “one month long” project hasn’t been finished even though it I started it over a year ago, and somehow I have a reputation now for getting things done.

      There were tons of reasons for that missed deadline, including me trying to code what another team hadn’t because they had missed their own deadlines, but one of the useful things that happened was the start of an ongoing discussion with my manager about project scoping. I’d ask for their insight on how to gauge a project, and maybe ask what the expected timeline for you to get up to speed is. (At my company, new developers are frequently counted as a “negative” to project work for 3 months: a team with 5 developers, 1 new, is counted to have 3.5 developers, because 1 person is expected to be training the new person half the time.)

      good luck!

    2. Bonnie Doon*

      Ugh I’ve been there. I found it helped to let Boss know project status as soon as I begin to sniff a rabbit hole. Also if possible come with your suggestions to make it look a lot less incompetent. In my office, IM is the best method:
      “Hey bob, are you free for about 10 minutes to discuss Project software? I’ve just gone to see Jane and it turns out X isn’t as simple as we thought because of Y. I have some thoughts on how to proceed next but wanted to run it past you first as they are likely to push the deadline out”

  8. Bea W*

    My team could meet more deadlines if only the number crunchers would stop crunching us while other people well over my boss’ head continue to demand more. It’s like the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. That leaves our manager in a constant state of reshuffling priorities. We can only do what we can do. You have to pick the most critical things and accept the damning, because no matter what someone is going to be unhappy about their position on your priority list.

  9. Kallie*

    The one about being clear about deadlines nearly killed me early in my career.

    My worst manager – I think he was trying to be the nice boss or something but it drove me insane. His version of a deadline was to not give you a deadline, but if you ask for one, to say “oh it’s not urgent at all – just do it when you get round to it”
    This would then be followed up by him asking me the next day if it was done ( because all along the big boss had asked for it by some not too far away deadline)
    I had just come from one of those jobs where 14 hours of your day was going to be putting out fires – ‘not urgent at all’ did NOT mean have it done by tomorrow! And would most likely never be done. And it’s not like I had nothing else to do, I was pretty productive in an already busy job (according to my boss’ boss at least!) One time the secret deadline of a “do it whenever” was by the end of the same day. Cue the frantic struggle to get it done.

    So I started trying to glean more from the outset, with a “sounds great Pete, happy to help. I was going to spend this week on x y and z but would you prefer I do this first, and that z can wait to next week?”
    To which he would then tell me he’d get back to me (and never would and be in meetings all day).
    So then I assumed that the “not urgent ” might be urgent so started doing them as soon as he handed them to me. But then he’d ask me why z wasn’t done by Friday as promised.

    Luckily this was during a time of plentiful jobs and I moved on pretty quickly.

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