Due Dates Are A Lazy Way to Gain Commitment
How giving commitment to the team creates ownership and value
While some work does have value that is captured in relation to the date it is delivered, I have experienced that, more often than not, teams are given arbitrary deadlines in order to keep them focused on delivering work. In this tidbit I will introduce you to the Commitment cadence, one of the six Kanban cadences we use at Ramsey Solutions.
If We Want it Then We Better Put a Date On It
In my early coaching days, I experienced an astounding example of arbitrary project due dates. I was sitting with a group of business analysts when their boss walked up and demanded, “Alright you guys, give me some due dates for when your projects will be completed.”
Keep in mind that none of the four analysts were responsible for actually doing any of the work for the projects and were acting as project managers.
There were obviously numerous issues with this request, not the least of which was that all four projects were being executed by the same small delivery team. I looked around to see if I could locate anyone from that delivery team. There wasn’t a single team member in sight to speak into answering this question of when work would be complete.
One by one the analysts called out the same completion date. I was astonished. Each of the four had paused to consider the request, which indicated they did not already have a due date specified. Not a single one opened a calendar, consulted the delivery team, or discussed with their other three compatriots.
It got worse.
The date which they had all given coincided with a holiday during which most of the team would be out of office. When I brought this to the attention of the manager, his response was, “In that case, just set the date for the next week.” Perplexed, I asked them the purpose of such an obviously arbitrary date. The response was, “To make sure the team stays focused and has a fire lit under their tails.”
Why We Date
The most common reason leaders use due dates is they believe, “Without them the team won’t get things done.” While there are various reasons for this impression, not the least of which is Parkinson’s Law1, it is indicative of a lack of trust. We don’t trust that, without a deadline, our teams will be capable of organizing themselves around the work and committing to getting it done therefore we create one for them.
Business moves at the speed of trust which means most businesses that use arbitrary dates to “light a fire” are moving slower than they think. When teams death march to a date they don’t understand or had no part in creating, you can almost guarantee they don’t know the value of the work. Teams that don’t understand the value of the work don’t feel like valued participants in the work and, as a result, don’t feel trusted or invested. While a deadline may give the illusion of speed, in the long run it slows things to a halt when people burnout or leave the team.
But what’s the solution?
A Better Way
One trick I coach teams to use is, when given a due date, ask the requestor or date giver this question: “If we don’t finish the work by that date, is it still worth doing?” If they say yes, the next question would be, “If it takes us a few weeks longer, is it still worth doing?” Again, if the answer is yes, you have a good example of work that does not have a real due date and, more than likely, a “light a fire under them” date. These questions allow the team to at least begin pushing back, but pushing back alone is not the goal. The real desired outcome of teaching a team to push back is that moment of revelation when they understand the value of committing to the work they do.
The question you’re all probably asking is, “Okay Tristan, how do we get teams to not waste time and actually get the work done?”
At Ramsey Solutions we created a simple meeting cadence that allowed leaders to put the power of commitment back in the hands of the team. We call it the Commitment cadence. (The name took a ton of thought, haha) The value of this meeting lies in two critical aspects:
It forces leaders to better communicate the value of work
It gives teams a voice in committing to their work and time boxes
Let’s take a closer look at both of these.
The main reason I call due dates a “lazy way to gain commitment” is because they are just a proxy for the ability to communicate value. We don’t have to go super deep here, but suffice it to say leaders should find a way to communicate value.
One tool that helps articulate value is to understand the proper constraint. We believe that all work or projects have primarily two constraints to consider:
The Time Constraint - When the date is the most important thing (Perhaps you want to launch a gift that people can purchase for Christmas)
The Body of Work Constraint - When the body of work is the most important thing (Perhaps you want to deliver a budgeting tool to the market)
It’s important to note that when the date is the most important thing, the body of work must be flexible, and vice versa. You shouldn’t have both constraints. This will help bring clarity to the value.2
What Could We Demo Next Week?
The second aspect of Commitment pays homage to Parkinson’s Law without the need for heavy handed deadlines. I like starting off a Commitment chat with the question, “What could we have ready to demo by next Friday?” I can almost hear you all screaming, “But Tristan, you just set a Deadline!” It’s not a deadline; it’s a conversation starter. In fact, most team members will say, “I don’t know about next Friday, but if we aimed for demo on Tuesday we could show this cool new feature.” That’s exactly what you are after.
When a team understands what’s being requested and feels the ownership to commit to the work as well as a demo, they are the ones that will own delivery. You won’t even need to crack a whip. At the end of the day, this is all we really want:
Teams that will take ownership.
Teams that will commit to showing us their work.
Teams that time box themselves.
The true value of the “What could we demo” question is that it causes teams to think in terms of what is possible to deliver in a short period of time. They are not being told what to deliver and when to deliver it and are instead being invited to the conversation. Which builds trust. And trust brings speed. And speed makes everyone smile.
To land the plane on Commitment, I want to share a tip on how to keep the meeting focused on ownership and not allow it to fall into a stage gate.
You can commit to work without knowing all the details of how to complete it. My good friend and Product Manager at Ramsey Solutions, Josh Campbell, says it this way,
I can tell you what commitment is NOT. It isn’t waiting to start work until you know all the details and have all the ducks in a row.
When there’s no risk, commitment requires nothing of us. The only value a commitment offers is the bond it forms to say, “We will push through the risks.” Giving a team the ownership to understand and commit to work unlocks the kind of trust a team needs in order to solve the really difficult problems. And that is why we exist.
Until next week,
Keep on Growing. Keep on Learning.
Parkinson’s Law is a humorous take by Cyril Northcote Parkinson that, loosely translated, states “work expands to fill the time allotted for is completion.” It’s a fair statement.