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Whoops, Apocalypse

by | Aug 4, 2021 | Business, Systems

Road Closed sign

An email arrived, “I’ll be able to get this to you tomorrow morning at the earliest, hope that doesn’t mess things up too much” It was about 5:30 pm. I needed about an hour to add some detail before passing on their work. My deadline was 8 pm that evening. So the delivery would be late, we had run out of contingency, but it’s only a few hours, no real harm done. Except there was. 

1. What are the real consequences of (just) missing a deadline?

This was a major project, we had been up against it for a few days, knowing the deadline was tight. I was waiting for the work that would enable the IT team to implement the systems to support a product launch in a major retail organisation. The deadline we were up against was a hard one. Miss it and the software to support the launch couldn’t be included in the next update which also included changes for many other projects. We did miss it. Our launch was delayed by three months, and about 7 thousand front line staff had to be retrained three months later. One day’s delay cost hundreds of thousands of pounds in direct costs and three months worth of sales of what, ultimately, proved to be a highly profitable addition to the product range. One day cost millions. Whoops, Apocalypse.

2. Do you know how to estimate the likelihood of success?

Throughout the run-up to that moment, we all knew things were going to be tight. Much work was being done right up to deadlines, and there was a lot of tension. Yet when we asked where things were there was always optimism. A sense that we could bring things back into planned times, and we, ever so nearly, did. What are you relying on a bit of optimism for right now? Is that optimism reasonable?

The problem is those small things do push us back when they go wrong. They eat into the time we have available, but deadlines don’t move. Work you already had planned, explicitly perhaps or implicitly, to do other work in the time that delayed task now takes. Something else is delayed. Something we didn’t plan, something we hadn’t got contingency for. 

How often are you able to bring work forward? And how often are you running up to deadlines, deferring important but not urgent work to complete the urgent but not as important? In my work I see it all the time, business leaders being pushed to deadlines and either just getting things done or being a day or two late, with the consequences that bring, and yet never quite, admitting there is a problem. 

We don’t plan to fail and we like to think that we are in control of our own destiny in a way that allows us to bring things back when they slip. Hoping that things will work out is the optimists’ curse, fearing that they won’t is the pessimists’ curse. A bit more realism is required, especially for the bigger pieces of work. Yet realism requires experienced skilled, contextualised estimates that few of us can get right.

 In earlier days when I assess it, I would adjust my estimates, erring on the side of caution. It felt negative like I was diminishing my own capabilities, but it’s all about recognising the human condition, our natural tendency to be over-optimistic on our expectations of success. Over time you can get a real understanding of how your estimates turn out and use that knowledge to adjust your own estimates, over time we can learn to be more realistic. 

3. How can you turn every situation to your advantage?

When we missed the deadline we did not “fail” – it was a stumble and, sure, it had some big consequences. But it also had the opportunity. We had an additional three months to do better training, we had three months to design some small but important changes to the product, we had three months to think about the customers we wanted, and three months to design better marketing. We fell, we didn’t fail. We were lucky too, we had bosses who didn’t point fingers but sought opportunity. They had a system (and systems are one of the strategic essentials for any business) to encourage innovative recovery.

I would assert that almost every (business) situation that occurs brings with it an opportunity to learn and improve and take advantage. Even if the business you currently run has to close because of insolvency the experience the owners take from it cannot be underestimated. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down. Building Better Business sometimes means starting again. 

4. Is your system effective at dealing with change?

I’m currently in the process of writing a book, (about Mastery you won’t be surprised to hear), and the publishing process has many deadlines and stages that need significant work. There’s a manuscript to write, and edit and a cover to design and so on. So I think about what I want to happen and when, so that the team involved in getting the book to market (it’s much more than just authorship) know what is happening, when, and who is responsible. We’ve planned the work and we know the timings. I’ve put slots in my diary and we will deliver the book in the middle of February 2022. Of course, things could happen that stress that plan. 

While I was writing the manuscript I was offered some work that would use up all my contingency time, and more, unless I changed something. I had to make a choice between writing the manuscript to meet the deadline or the client work. So I worked my system. Replanned the timeline up to the deadline, choices needed to be made. I chose to outsource some activities (the extra work made funding that easier). I also had to make choices about my working day, and social time over a short period. I knew that I needed to be strict with myself over the next two or three months to make it all work and I was optimistic about that. I also knew about my tendency to optimism so I identified other things that could also be outsourced if something threw the plan off track. At the end that wasn’t needed, but knowing that it was possible meant I was less worried about the possibility. The client work and the manuscript were all delivered. 

The system here is about real choices. Whenever you say yes to something you are saying no to something else. My system makes that choice explicit. “I will take this client work, I won’t do …” It’s also about writing it down, I find that writing down any big decision crystallises the choice in ways just thinking about it does not. It’s why I keep a journal, but it is also why on the bigger things I talk through the plans with my advisors and supporters, they see the gaps, the flaws, the optimism or pessimism, they help me make it real. When it is real, it works. 

If you have a big, important, deadline-driven project and you want to be sure you succeed give me a call (link to and let’s chat.

Image by: William Buist © 2020


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Written by: William Buist - all rights reserved.