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Employees missing deadlines? Here’s how to make it stop!

Missing deadlines is a common occurrence in the world of small business. No one is to blame (or everyone is to blame) and there are no real consequences — until the owner wakes up one morning and says, “Hey, weren’t we supposed to be finished with this project by now? What happened?”

There are plenty of reasons why your projects aren’t getting done. Maybe you aren’t clear about the outcome and benefits; maybe there are too many priorities. Maybe the project is really hard, and people have lots of easier work to do instead. Regardless of why you are missing deadlines — when you are ready to reverse the trend, I’d like to point you down a certain yellow brick road….


Many deadlines slip because they aren’t real, and everyone knows it. We set deadlines for when we want something to be done, but we really haven’t done any work to determine if that deadline is reasonable or doable. So we get close to the deadline, and the project is 25% done. Then we move the deadline. This just teaches folks that we don’t mean what we say and that our deadlines aren’t real.

To start meeting deadlines, we need to make sure that we have created a plan that has a reasonable chance of success. Bonus points if your team created the plan themselves — that way they are committed to the reasonableness of the deadline!

Once you have the plan and everyone has bought into it, then demonstrate your commitment to it! Tell your team;

“This project needs to be completed by this date. If there is any reason you don’t see that happening, I need to hear about it right away so that we can eliminate that risk.”
Don’t leave any doubt that this is a real deadline — commit to it. And get that same commitment from everyone else involved meeting it!

Clear the decks — get everything else out of the way.

In small organizations, many deadlines are missed because everyone has more than one job. Yes, you want your operations person to get your email service switched to the new provider — and you also want her to get payroll out, pay the bills and perform post-mortems on the closed jobs! What responsibilities do you want her to ignore if she’s out of time? Flexibility and agility are key advantages that small businesses have over their bigger competitors — you don’t want to lose that. But if your team is going to deliver projects on time, something’s got to give!

If you haven’t done it in the planning process, now is the time to evaluate the workload and assignments that your team members have on their plates. Get each person to agree that their workload is reasonable and doable. While you are doing this, reinforce your commitment to the deadline. Let them know that if other job responsibilities are getting in the way of meeting this deadline, they need to let you know. Then both of you can work on a solution that doesn’t involve moving the deadline.

Part of clearing the decks may mean getting additional support for your team members to ensure that there are no excuses for why this project doesn’t get completed. This may mean adding support to the project in question in the form of contract or temp workers, or it might mean taking some of the more mundane tasks away from your employees so that they can put their effort and expertise toward meeting the deadline.

Celebrate Progress

If the project lasts longer than a couple of weeks, we must ensure we are celebrating progress. What interim milestones will tell you (and your team) that the project is on track toward on-time completion? How can we make those mini-deadlines just as important as the final deadline? When we fall behind in the early stages of a project, we think, “Well, there’s still plenty of time to make that up over the course of the rest of the project.” But the truth is that minor delays early in a project’s life multiply— creating greater and greater delays as the project goes on. By treating every interim milestone like it’s the end of a mini-project, we keep the whole project moving on schedule.

As a milestone approaches, start talking about it. “Hey, I’m sure we’re on track for that milestone (since no one’s told me otherwise), so I’m planning a little celebration for that on-time completion.” Then pass out movie tickets and gift cards, or bring in coffee and sweets — something small but meaningful, to cement the idea that we are taking these deadlines seriously.


Since you’ve been treating the interim deadlines seriously, the final deadline should get more and more real to everyone. You are saying,”She’s really serious about this deadline; it’s not going to get put off.” Throughout the project, you should be less and less tolerant of excuses or requests for more help. We worked on the project plan together, and you clearly wanted to hear about problems when they first appeared, so you shouldn’t be hearing about new problems late in the project. Now is the time to get out your inner drill sergeant — you don’t want to hear about excuses; you want to hear about progress and what it will take to finish the project on the deadline. This is where you want to start seeing folks sweat slightly. They might feel the need to work late or come in over a weekend. Overtime is not a sustainable solution to a problem, but if you need a few weeks of OT right before a deadline, it’s a good learning experience for next time!

In the final phase, it’s time for the iron fist in the velvet glove. Start planning a real celebration once the project is completed, and re-emphasize commitment: we will finish this project on time.

Every Time?

“This is a lot of work just to get people to finish a project on time, do I have to do this every time?”

Yes, and no. Yes, you must ensure the project is clearly planned from the beginning and that the team has always bought into the plan. However, the goal of making a big deal out of this first project is to start a cultural change. The next time, you won’t have to make quite as big a deal, and the 10th time, it should be happening without you putting so much into it.

It’s a little like exercise. If you are trying to get into shape, much effort is needed to get the ball rolling. Keeping yourself in shape is less painful — but you still have to go to the gym every week!

How do you keep your team on track and avoid missing deadlines? What has worked to keep this going in your business?

Download the script now

Here’s the script I use to go from that first performance conversation through “no drama” consequences all the way up to an eventual firing (if needed).

You can download it today and see it for yourself.