Big deadlines and complex endeavours are not good bedfellows. Conflict exists between doing the right thing and doing SOME thing by the Big Date.

Small deadlines are the answer.

Many initiatives are doomed to be “late” from the get go simply because the Big Date was picked for arbitrary reasons. I sense problems when clients tell me they set their deadlines:

  • “because our budget will run out that day”,

  • “because I don’t believe it should take any longer than that”,

  • ”because it made sense based on our assumptions that …”,

  • or worst of all “because we promised the client before we understood what they needed“

A team undertaking complex work needs a metronome to keep the pace of the work moving, a way to avoid analysis paralysis and drive the discipline of action over the desire for perfection.

But they also need the latitude to find the best solution, to deliver what’s absolutely necessary and disregard everything else. This means setting simple goals that distill the necessary outcome to its simplest form—“reduce call centre wait times by 50% by the end of this year”, “increase plant throughput by 10% within one month”.

Much better to begin by building on what we know, recognizing what we need to learn, and aggressively pursuing an understanding of the path we need to take. Here are some good ways to provide that metronome:

  • Apply constraints that force us to deliver or learn, quickly and cheaply.

  • Focus on solving the single most important problem before we begin the next.

  • Doing complete work in short bursts, with reviews and re-planning at each milestone.

  • Understanding what work must be completed with specific windows of opportunity.

The question, then, is not whether the work can be completed by this window, but what part of the work could be completed AND is absolutely necessary.

Mastering the art of setting small deadlines is crucial to becoming a great planner.


Look hard at the way you’ve defined the goals of your team’s next project.

  1. Have you simplified the goals as much as possible?

  2. Ask the team what latitude they need to come up with the best answer.

  3. Now ask them to define their initial deadlines and impose constraints on themselves.

How do you like their plan?

Now send the plan to me at graham@primeFusion.ca and I’ll give you my feedback.

… and if you missed these related articles, go back and take another look:

Reduce your options and get stuff done
Optimism is sure to get you in trouble
When to decide and move on