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Are you suffering “The Deadline Delay Syndrome”?

Founders, CEOs, CTOs and product leaders will all at some point be faced with the tricky problem when they believe product development is going too slow. Product development is involved with many parameters, all of which can impact the performance or the perceived performance of cross-functional teams. How do you make things go faster?

The most common leadership mistake I see when trying to improve product team performance is the attempt to create accountability around timescales. Focusing on timescales puts pressure on teams to commit to how long a feature set will take to build. There are two immediate challenges with this:

  1. What to build will be unclear; there will be requirements not currently understood.

  2. How to build it will be unclear; there will be complexities and dependencies not fully understood. 

It is not feasible to provide an accurate estimate, and this is the root cause of the first unwanted effect of focusing on deadlines. The committed delivery date will be wrong, so those individuals or teams experienced in providing an estimate will add contingency - i.e. they will not give the best case scenario it will be longer. The safer commitment will trigger what is called Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allocated. So if it could have been done in three weeks, but the commitment was five weeks it would take five weeks. This has the opposite effect of the leader’s original intention, it did not speed up development instead it slowed down development. 

The estimated deadline creates a second unwanted effect. It encourages the team to make poor decisions in the belief they are time-poor. When coaching teams and product managers who are releasing features that have zero impact on business objectives, I often ask “What did you learn from validation experiments with the target market?”, the answer is regularly “We didn’t have time to do that”. Under time constraints, the product team skips crucial steps, often resulting in building the wrong feature and creating tech debt. Features that don’t create value are a complete waste of investment and impact the product team's morale. 

I call this failed attempt to speed up product development “The Deadline Delay Syndrome”. Putting sustained pressure on teams to make timescale commitments results in negatively impacting the product. The impact of constant deadline pressure is increased tech debt, features failing to create value and slower delivery. 

Do you have a 12-month roadmap with features and delivery dates? If you do, you are likely suffering from “The Deadline Delay Syndrome.” If you want to create accountability, you need to focus product teams on achieving outcomes, not outputs. Senior leaders can regularly review progress towards the outcome and decide if it makes sense to continue to invest in the outcome or move onto a different one. Some of the best leadership teams prioritise outcomes based on the cost of delay.