Missed deadlines: How to get the project back on track

Jelena Kalaba

Last updated on: August 22, 2022

You might have given in to procrastination or poorly estimated the time it would take to finish the task. 

Perhaps it was due to something completely out of your control, like a health issue, a team member who decided to suddenly quit, or a third party contractor who failed to complete their part of the job. Whatever it was — the damage is done.

So, what now?

Read on and you’ll learn about:

  • The most common causes of missed deadlines,
  • How to prevent yourself from missing deadlines in the first place, and, finally,
  • How to get a derailed project back on the right track.
Missed deadlines - cover

Why are missed project deadlines a problem?

A deadline is an important tool that helps frame the project and set a steady work tempo. 

When everything is going smoothly and deadlines are well-spaced and realistic, they function as goals for the project team and serve as motivators in their own right.

But, when a project hits a snag and your team happens to miss a deadline, this can create a host of other problems such as:

  • Pushing back the deadlines of other dependent tasks,
  • Working overtime,
  • Increased stress,
  • Decreased team morale,
  • Burnout,
  • Money loss, and
  • Lost trust of your superiors, clients, or customers.

To avoid the pitfalls of missed deadlines, we must first understand why deadlines are missed in the first place.

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

Deadlines are extremely valuable tools for managing projects. To learn exactly what makes them important and how you can manipulate them to get them to work to your advantage, check out this guide:

Main causes of missed deadlines

There are countless reasons for missing a deadline. Some are entirely unavoidable and outside our control, such as:

  • Illnesses, 
  • Accidents, 
  • Unforseen staff reductions, 
  • Contractor mistakes,
  • Shipping issues (for projects that require physical resources), etc.

Not much can be done about these. The only thing you can do is plan the project from the beginning with the assumption that setbacks will inevitably happen, and create contingency plans just in case.

However, there are plenty of other, quite preventable reasons. In this section, we’ll talk about some of the most common reasons why deadlines get missed.

Reason #1: The planning fallacy

The planning fallacy — a term first coined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979 — refers to people’s tendency to underestimate the time, budget, and other resources and risks related to a task, even if the estimates contradict their previous experiences.

Instead, we employ wishful thinking and imagine the best possible outcome, failing to take into account any possible issues or disturbances that might crop up.

So, how do we deal with planning fallacy?

Solution: Get a second opinion

According to a research paper that studied the “planning fallacy” phenomenon, while people tend to grossly underestimate the time they will need to complete a task, their accuracy drastically increases when they do the same for others.

With this in mind, it’s valuable to always assume that your estimates are wrong and to get a second opinion from a colleague, superior, or better yet — your own team. 

This will help you look at your project with fresh eyes and notice potential issues that you might not have noticed otherwise.

Reason #2: Lack of pressure

When deadlines carry no weight — there are no consequences for missing them, or rewards for completing them — they, and by extension, the work needed to meet them, are perceived as pointless.

Without a healthy dose of pressure to finish tasks on time, or at least a clear understanding why it’s important to finish them, people are quick to hit the pause button on work and turn to easier or more enjoyable tasks instead — in other words, to procrastinate. 

Solution: Ensure everyone understands why their work is important

When collaborating on a project, a team needs to know what their job is — but they also need to know why they’re doing it in order to be fully invested.

When Miyagi-sensei told Daniel in Karate Kid to wax his cars and paint the fence, Daniel did the work sloppily because he saw it as pointless. 

Only after Miyagi-sensei explained why mastering the movements was important did Daniel get excited and meticulous about doing the work that was asked of him.

In a similar manner, if your team isn’t involved in the planning and they don’t fully understand the merits of their work and the consequences of missing deadlines, they’ll tend to procrastinate and give a half-hearted performance.

Reason #3: Unrealistic deadlines

There are a few reasons project managers may assign unrealistic deadlines to their teams. Some of the possible reasons include:

  • Being unable to say “no” to additional work requested by stakeholders,
  • Trying to speed up the project,
  • Poor communication with the team, and
  • Lack of planning.

Unrealistic deadlines tend to push teams to work round the clock to finish the tasks at hand, which can lead to burnout. In especially difficult cases, not even working overtime will get the tasks finished on time, which is a surefire way to diminish morale among team members.

Solution: Communicate with your team members

Project managers sometimes set unrealistic deadlines because they aren’t the ones who actually do the work, and aren’t fully aware of what goes into completing certain tasks.

The main issue here is lack of communication. A project manager is never separate from their team. Whether it’s planning a feature set, budget estimates, or setting deadlines, your team’s input is invaluable. 

A project manager should maintain constant and transparent communication with their team throughout the project, and include the team in every major decision that has to do with the work they will be performing.

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

Learn more about why communication is important in project management and how to establish effective communication in project management in the link below:

Reason #4: Poor time management

Poor time management is a widespread problem that affects teams and project managers alike. 

According to a 2012 McKinsey study, people spend on average 28% of their time at work checking and answering emails.

In recent years, this number has drastically increased to an unbelievable 3–5 hours every day, according to an Adobe Email Usage Study from 2019 — and this is just the time wasted on emails.

Inefficient use of time at work is one of the primary reasons why people: 

  • Cram most of the work in the final stages of the deadline, 
  • Appear to always be working, but progressing extremely slowly, and
  • Ultimately miss deadlines altogether.

Solution: Timebox and prioritize tasks

According to Parkinson’s law, work will expand to fill the time available for its completion. Therefore, if the issue is poor time management, the best remedy would be timeboxing — assigning a set and maximum amount of time for any given task.

In theory, this means that if you give a task a time limit of 5 hours, you will finish it in 5 hours; if you give it a time limit of 2 hours, you will likely finish it in 2, provided that this is a realistic timeframe. 

The idea is to eliminate the amount of time you procrastinate or spend doing activities that could take less time to do.

This technique, coupled with prioritizing tasks, should get you well on your way to better time management.

7 Tips for recovering from a missed deadline

So, you’ve tried your best, but things still got out of hand, and a deadline was missed. This is, of course, not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world.

Here are a few things you can do to get everything under control again.

Tip #1: Report it ASAP

The longer you wait to report an issue or a delay, the bigger the hole you’re digging yourself into.

It’s extremely important to let your stakeholders know about the risk of a missed deadline as soon as it’s evident that it is going to happen. This gives everyone a chance to react in time and perhaps even do some damage control before things get completely out of hand.

You should do this even if you don’t have much additional information to offer at the moment. The first order of business is to simply notify all the key parties. 

An official meeting will be held where you’ll have to present the reasons for missing the deadline and your plans to get the project back on track again. Until then, just focus on keeping everyone up to date.

Tip #2: Assess the situation

When you’re sure that everyone is duly notified, get on to assessing the situation. 

This will probably require long nights of sifting through the project documentation in order to find the root of the problem. 

You’ll have to sit through many meetings with your team to determine:

  • All the areas of the project affected by the missed deadline,
  • The effects of the missed deliverable on the project as a whole, and
  • The best course of action going forward.

Tip #3: Develop an action plan

A deadline was missed, and, whether that was directly your fault or not, you as the project manager are held accountable for it. 

So, instead of wasting your time trying to think of excuses or lay blame on other people or circumstances, the best thing you can do is be proactive — compile information and lay out a clear plan of action to show the stakeholders that you are committed to fixing the issue.

This means that you might have to:

  • Put a stop to scope creep,
  • Create an emergency responsibility reassignment,
  • Delegate, and
  • Revise deliverables and reassign resources.

Put a stop to scope creep

Scope creep is inevitable in most projects. But, in a situation where you’re already behind schedule, more changes are the last thing you need. 

So, to make it easier to deal with the main issue of bringing the project back on track, all changes to the scope that aren’t absolutely necessary should be temporarily (or even permanently) put on hold. 

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

To learn more about scope and why understanding it is critical to project success, read our guide below:

Create an emergency responsibility reassignment

Depending on the severity of the consequences the missed deadline is causing, you might want to consider an emergency all-hands-on-deck approach.

This would mean having all qualified personnel drop what they’re doing and divide the work amongst themselves in order to finish the compromised tasks as soon as possible. 

This might not be the best course of action, but in emergency situations, it might be the only viable one.

Delegate work

Delegating work is perhaps a better, albeit more costly and uncertain, alternative to the all-hands-on-deck approach.

If your budget is in the black, but you’re strapped for time, a good possible solution is to hire a third-party contractor to help you out. 

This approach has its risks if you’ve never worked with that particular contractor, or a group of contractors, before. But, it’s a great way to get some of the work off your shoulders and iron out the project timeline.

Revise deliverables and reallocate resources

Another thing you could do to make sure one missed deadline doesn’t affect your final, end-of-project deadline, is to go over the deliverables and identify the ones that could be removed or replaced to save time.

This will require some serious changes in resource allocation.

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

If you’re unsure about what a deliverable is, take a look at our guide where you’ll find definitions, examples, types of deliverables, and more:

Now, of course, this can’t be done without stakeholder permission, but it’s a valid point to bring up in the meeting where you’ll discuss your next plan of action.

Most of the time, if you’ve provided a reasonable explanation for the missed deadline, and have shown initiative to do everything in your power to fix the issue — stakeholders will show understanding. After all, they too want the project completed on time.

However, this won’t always be the case, so you might want to have a plan B on standby.

Tip #4: Communicate with stakeholders

Once you’ve assessed the situation and put together a viable action plan, it’s time to present it to the key stakeholders and get their approval. 

This is a necessary step since nothing in a project can happen without the stakeholders’ consent. 

If your presentation is sufficiently convincing and you have Lady Luck on your side, you might even receive additional funding to help you deal with the issue.

Tip #5: Update your risk management plan

Significant updates to the project plan require a whole new risk management plan. In it, you should: 

  • Identify as many possible negative risks as you can think of, 
  • Complete with plans on how to prevent them from happening, and 
  • Create contingency plans to offset them, should they ever occur. 

Remember that you should keep the risk management plan updated at all times, to avoid other emergency situations.

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

To learn more about the elements and types of risk in project management and how to identify risk, read our detailed guide here:

Tip #6: Carefully monitor progress

Since you’ve gone through the trouble of replacing a chunk of your old plan with a completely new one, you should carefully monitor its progress if you don’t want history to repeat itself.

A good way to do this is by making good use of a reliable project management tool that will provide a comprehensive top-down overview of your entire project.

Project tasks in Plaky table view
Project tasks in Plaky table view

Instead of collecting paper reports and trying to keep mental notes of what each of your team member is working on, project management software allows you to:

  • Keep track of who’s doing what,
  • Easily identify bottlenecks,
  • Notice when someone is behind schedule or overwhelmed with work,
  • Get notified whenever changes are made to the tasks you’re subscribed to,
  • Keep track of task statuses and dependencies,
  • Leave feedback for completed tasks, and much more.

Project management tools like Plaky allow you to fully customize your workspaces according to your project management style. You can:

  • Color code your tasks,
  • Create custom statuses and tags,
  • Filter and sort tasks according to common characteristics,
  • Switch to using a Kanban board if you’re leading an Agile project, etc.

In other words, project management tools are critical for staying on top of your projects and monitoring progress — but without your team feeling like you’re micromanaging them. 

Tip #7: Ask for a deadline extension

This is kind of a cheat tip, but a valid one nonetheless. 

Before you spend days trying to completely rebuild a part of your project, consider asking your stakeholders whether they’d be willing to extend the deadline.

Of course, this tends to work better on smaller projects. Besides, some deadlines — e.g. important events like the Olympics — are fixed, and not even the stakeholders have the power to change them.

However, once in a while, you’ll find yourself in a situation where the stakeholders will be glad to extend your deadline so long as you have a reasonable explanation for why a deadline extension is necessary. So, there’s never any harm in asking.

Conclusion: A missed deadline won’t kill your project

No one likes missing deadlines. Luckily, there are plenty of precautions you can take to prevent it from happening in the first place.

But, projects rarely run smoothly, and hiccups are bound to happen. And, when they do, you can follow our 7 tips on how to get your project back on track. You can use them as guidelines to save your project from completely unraveling because of a seemingly small mistake.

✉️ Have you ever missed a deadline? Why did it happen? How did your superiors react? What did you do to make up for the inconvenience that it caused them? If you have an interesting story, or a suggestion you’d like to share with us, email us at blogfeedback@plaky.com, and your ideas might find themselves in one of our future texts. And, if you liked this post and found it useful, share it with someone you think would benefit from it.

Author: JelenaKalaba

Jelena Kalaba is a project management author and researcher who prioritizes organization in all spheres of life. After a long day of juggling multiple small projects at work, she likes to relax with a casual TV show and a bowl of ramen. Besides content marketing and research on boosting productivity, her latest interests include breaking down complex project management concepts into easily-digestible guides that will help even beginners get closer to their first project management certification.

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