I've had this discussion several times over the past few weeks - the subject of deadlines seems to be popping up all over as we get through the first half of the year and look ahead to our commitments for the rest of the year.

 One of the main sources of grief involves non-specific deadlines:  Q4, early next week, it will be done next month. 

 As project managers, we often use date ranges for projections.  For us, it's a good way of planning and prioritizing (usually for a year at a time).  It gives us some reasonable staffing projections and builds in flex at a high level so that one project's schedule overrun won't disrupt the high level delivery plans of other projects dependent on function or resource.

 But…here's the problem.  In my experience - both professionally and in my personal life - the interpretation of these vague delivery projections varies dramatically depending on which side of the equation you're on.

 The person or team on the delivery side - the one providing the product or service - will invariably consider 'Q4' to mean 'I will deliver this no later than December 31'.  The person or team on the receiving side - the customer - always assumes that 'Q4' means 'I will have this in my hands on October 1'.

Project managers aren't exempt - we change our assumptions based on which side of the equation we're on.  I talked to one coaching client who had told an internal customer that a piece of software would be available 'in July' (we talked about why that was probably going to cause her trouble), and then in the same session talked about why her assumption that her development team's commitment to getting her an estimate 'next week' meant Monday was probably not the same assumption the dev lead was operating under.

Not only that, depending on the situation even giving a specific date might cause problems.  If you're working with tight deadlines and/or dependencies, delivery on 'Thursday' might still be too vague.  Perhaps 'end of day Pacific time' would be better if there's any possible issue with time of day.

It's really not too hard to avoid issues if you apply some discipline.  The two main lessons to remember to keep you out of trouble are these:

  1. If you want to give a projection of Q4, provide it as 'by the end of Q4'
  2. If someone gives you a projection of Q4, immediately ask the question 'what's the latest in Q4 you would deliver?'


Once you get used to identifying vague dates (and that's not as easy as it sounds, since many of us do an automatic translation of Q4 to December 31) you can ask the right questions - or provide the information in your projections - and avoid the date trap.