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 how 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. (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.

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How to Succeed When Deadlines and Priorities Constantly Change
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Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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