TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

Our group executes internal projects for the company. In many cases, we don’t necessarily have any firm deadlines on our projects. Our clients would like to have the work done as soon as possible, but if it turns out to take three months to complete the project instead of two months, they normally are not very concerned. In one respect that’s a luxury. On the other hand, it can also lead to a lack of focus. What do you think? Is this a good environment to be in?

Thanks for your question. I think I understand what you’re referring to. I’ve worked in the development organization for a number of companies. We didn’t sell software to customers or work on contracts for clients. Like most of the readers, our clients were other internal business groups. When it came to project deadlines, I noticed three types of situations:

  • Business-driven deadlines
  • Artificial but firm deadlines
  • No firm deadlines

Business-driven deadlines
In many cases, there are firm business events that drive the project deadline. One that I remember was a little event that we called Y2K. However, other events might be an annual sales meeting, an annual user’s conference, the monthly closeout cycle, and so on. None of these business events can be postponed, so projects need to be completed before the event occurs.

Artificial but firm deadlines
There are other project deadlines that are not necessarily based on business events, but are firm nonetheless. The most common artificial deadline is imposed by yearly budget deadlines. This one is very common for most companies. When I worked for a Fortune 500 beverage company, many projects had an end-of-year deadline because that’s when the budgets ran out. If your projects are normally funded on a budget-year basis, then they typically have to be completed by the end of the year. This is a fact of life. It’s not a business deadline, but it’s a firm deadline nonetheless.

A second major cause of artificial deadlines is the timing and relationship of projects that all need to be completed in a given year. Sometimes a deadline for one project is based on allowing for the start date of another one. Most companies have a process to prioritize projects for a given year. The projects are started based on urgency and staff availability. I have managed many projects that had a firm end date because the project team was needed to work on another project. This second project needed to start by a certain date to be completed by December 31, the artificial deadline.

What if you do not have a firm deadline?
So far, I’ve discussed projects that have firm deadlines based on business priorities and projects that have deadlines based on non-business priorities. However, many projects don’t have firm deadlines at all. I worked at a typical medium-sized company that had many projects planned for completion during the year. Most of them did not have a firm deadline, other than to be completed as soon as possible during the year. There was no business-driven deadline. There was also not a firm artificial deadline. For example, if the project started in March and was scheduled to last three months, the end-of-the-year deadline did not come into play.

All projects, by definition, need an end date. When I managed projects that didn’t have a firm deadline, I worked with the project team to set one. In these cases, I still created a project definition and work plan based on the best guess of the resources available and the work effort required. I also brought the team into this planning process so everyone knew what we were shooting for. Once the team agreed with the schedule, that became our firm end date. I managed the new deadline as if it were business-driven.

On many occasions, I was a manager of project managers. When these situations came up, I did the same thing: I asked the project manager to plan out a reasonably aggressive schedule, made sure the team believed that they could hit the dates, and then held them to that commitment. Even though the client may have been happy with the project being delivered later, I made sure the team understood that I was holding them accountable to hitting the end date that they committed to.

No deadline leads to lack of focus
I’m convinced that a project team without a firm deadline will be unfocused and will ultimately take much longer to deliver than necessary. It sounds like you have a similar concern. So, when I see projects that are like this, I work with the project team to have them set a reasonable deadline, and then I hold them accountable for that date. This allows the team to work with purpose and focus. It’s also a way of making sure that the projects don’t continue indefinitely. Even if the client doesn’t have a sense of urgency on when the project is completed, I want to make sure that the project team doesn’t have this same attitude.