Rethinking deadlines

Goodbye to the month of June, a calendar occasion which is of course the end of the financial year (EOFY) in Australia. This date means many things in our office, and one of those things is — finishing projects!

In our planning, urban and landscape design work — for government and for business clients — projects are often given EOFY as a target finish date (rivalled in popularity only by Christmas).  These dates set the rhythm of the consulting year. New projects start and others end, around about the summer and winter solstices.

Some may observe that it can be challenging to achieve EOFY or Christmas deadlines, or even any programme deadlines as set out in a project brief. Sometimes it seems like the programme is the first thing to go into the recycling bin when a project commences (often many weeks after it was supposed to).

So, why are many project programmes seemingly so unachievable?

Blowout, the evidence

This is a topic I have learned more about recently by listening to a couple of good podcasts.  One is an episode of ABC’s The Money from 2023 titled Blowout, and the second is an older podcast from Freakonomics Radio in 2018.

Both these podcasts ponder why it is that so many projects — especially large projects — seem to take longer than planned (and in many cases massively exceed their budgets as well).

Incredibly, some of the research quoted suggests that for major projects — in infrastructure, transport, defence etc. — only 8.5% of projects are delivered on time and on budget, and a miniscule 0.5% get completed to time, budget AND to their original purpose.

It seems like there are several reasons why we get our programmes and budgets wrong so often. And some of these explanations I can see happening in our projects, more often than I’d like to think.

  1. Perhaps the most excusable reason is the ‘optimism bias’. We think we can achieve more then we can. As natural optimists perhaps we all just take a positive attitude to our work and set ourselves optimistic targets to work towards.
  2. A second reason cited is not allowing enough time to collaborate, coordinate and work together to achieve tasks. I do sometimes joke with my colleagues that we only ever do 20% of our work on the ‘actual project’  — drawing designs or writing plans. The other 80% is all about communicating with clients and colleagues and team members, talking to others about our findings and bringing us all along for the ride.
  3. And what about politics (of the government type or the office type)?  Might our system of governance have a role to play in pushing forward over ambitious programmes.  Think of… as a desire to make announcements, to get things underway, to commence the work and ‘just get on with it’.
  4. Perhaps, in some instances, individuals over-promise, maybe to encourage a project to go ahead that they have some personal enthusiasm for, or to promote their own role or department?
  5. Returning to the EOFY, I think we do in Australia attach many project programmes to the July to June annual budget periods in which they’ve been funded. Whether or not this is the best length of time to do the work.

Changing our approach to programmes and deadlines

So, do we need to change the way we devise our programmes and deadlines?

The experts are clear that the best way to programme new projects is to look at examples of similar projects that have been undertaken in the past. How long did these take to complete? Were delays experienced? What length of time did particular tasks need?  Taking a case study approach seems to be the best way to provide realistic programmes for future projects (and is also a reliable way to plan for budgets as well).

In our work at Jensen PLUS, we and our clients certainly have enough experience to plan for all of the project development feedback loops, the community engagement, councillor presentations, decision making processes and administrative delays that we know will be needed.

And what about our attitude to deadlines?

It is common practice (including at Jensen PLUS) to carefully resource how we spend our time, and to look ahead to targets, deadlines and milestones.  A bit of motivation and direction is often useful for individuals and for team productivity, but I do observe (and hear from others) that when the ‘cycle of production’ takes over, the pressure can become relentless.  The risk of wearing down individuals and teams is always there.

Deadlines and programmes are important but, in my experience, they are rarely the aim or even an objective of a planning or design project.

Perhaps we need to reshape our attitude towards deadlines, programming from an informed position based on past experience, and providing our teams enough time to deliver on projects, without taking too much from our personal reserves of energy and time, or worrying too much about dates on the calendar?


Michael McKeown

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