From the Bunker: The Art of The Deadline

Professional services are governed by a gravitational pull called ‘deadlines’ – those scope of work contracts and payment schedules depend largely on great work delivered on time. We blow our brand promise by not delivering on due dates. We blow our profit margins by delivering something half-baked a day late. Just can’t miss a deadline or WE are dead – that’s the bottom line.

This seems painfully obvious to some. But to young creative talent, this deadline concept has become increasingly fuzzy. It isn’t a millennial problem or a gen z problem. To blame young people for their crappy training is needlessly insulting and misplaces the guilt – young students are trained into their thinking by people who should know better.

I spent almost a decade as an educator in public and private schools. I can say without batting an eye that the concept of a ‘deadline’ is increasingly devalued and in many cases not upheld at all. Educators and administrators can’t afford to see their student’s GPAs/ passing rates plummet by enforcing strict deadlines. It would just destroy the way those systems run, so grace periods are extended, a few points are docked, and everyone continues on their merry way. Universities do this as well. Grade inflation allows for it. Even saw it in grad school, if you can believe it.

So, here is a thesis point for this edition – Deadlines with grace periods and docked points aren’t deadlines. 

The etymology of the word itself says what it is: a line, a fixed moment in time on a timeline wherein the project is due or it is dead. Your work is due or your credibility is dead. The contract is dead. The expectation and faithful relationship are functionally dead. You either show up for the wedding moment or you don’t. You either board the airplane or it leaves without you. You show for the contract signing or the deal is off. This can come as a bit of a shock to younger staff members.

In a world of very stiff competition, where you earn your reputation like you earn your pay, that deadline means everything. Walking into a meeting or presentation with something ‘almost complete’ or pushing a deadline with a shrug and the well-formed apologetic phrase doesn’t do the trick in the real world. It just doesn’t. We don’t allow it as an agency and our clients have come to appreciate that over the years.

So – how do you ensure that deadlines remain deadlines?

First – you train it into the culture. You talk about it and re-talk about it and then mention it once more just for kicks.
Second – you involve team members in the decision-making and the establishment of the deadlines. What do you have lined up for next week? Is Thursday at 3 feasible? Etc. There are exceptions, micro-emergencies, but by involving the creative team’s voice in the establishment of deadlines, they take more ownership of delivering on the promise. 
Third – we create internal deadlines for our team to make certain we are all engines ready for the actual (client-side) deadline. This gives us a chance for quality assurance measures and to check for last-minute glitches/typos, etc. 
Fourth – we own anything that falls short of excellence. We have to own it. In fact, our leadership will own the mistakes of the team – we aren’t going to throw young talent under the wheels of the bus; the truth is their glitch belongs to us and how we’ve trained/managed the young talent. It’s only right for us to own that. I’m thankful to say that we’ve only missed one hard deadline in the last 5 years – it was the month that Covid landed in a big way and we had a fumble. Hated that. No fun to personally approach a client and apologize. But it happened.
Fifth – it means we do whatever it takes to stick that landing and make the deadline – if it is 2am and we are re-rendering a file or 5 am and we’re up fixing a plug-in problem. That’s just part of radical responsibility. We do what it takes.

I can add that the reason we haven’t fumbled more often than that regarding deadlines is because of the great team leaders we have on staff. They set the expectations and work tirelessly to make sure our clients’ needs are the top priority. Our people are good – no, they’re top-rate good. Deadlines are part of their service-oriented mindset. They are the tiger you must always ride, or they turn around and eat you.

A culture that reveres the deadline is a culture that works to assist teammates to get to complete. We all know what that pressure feels like and we often hear people say, ‘what can I help with?’ ‘do you need me for anything – ‘are you stuck’ : those are powerful phrases that communicate authentic support and relational credibility.

“I see you. I know you are struggling today, how can I grab a corner and help you lift?’

Now, I’ve been rambling on and on about something that the client never sees. They just show up for presentation meetings and are oblivious to the herculean struggle we just endured to get to their finalized, spit-shined project. They don’t see the internal wrestling match where ideas bounce and slap against one another. They won’t know that slide 4 was almost slide 11 and, thank god, they’ll never know about slide 20! They stroll into a meeting, beverage in hand, and expect to be wowed. It is supposed to look easy and natural. We should be showing such good work that the only question in their head is ‘what else can I order?! – it all looks so good and the service is exceptional!’ 

Those great moments only happen because people respect that DEADLINE. Without it, we’re all dead.