David Caulfield

Everything should have a timeline

We hate them, but timelines are important

Most things have timelines. Projects, tasks, meetings - nearly everything has an end date. Timelines are needed to clarify expectations and let people know when things will happen. Without timelines, dependencies can't be managed and communication breaks down. Your colleagues need to know what time you'll arrive at work. Your manager needs to know what date the project will deliver. You need to know when the plumber will come to fix the drain.

Timelines influence priorities

While timelines exist to add structure and predictability, they can be mismanaged. Timelines also indicate priority, so we should be hesitant to apply aggressive timelines without checking their priority. If I have 3 high priority items on my todo list, I'll do the one with the shortest timeline first.

But if I have a low priority item that needs to be done in the next hour, it suddenly becomes the most important thing on my list. If we're not careful with timelines, they can do more damage than good, introducing chaotic timelines instead of following priority.

Timelines add accountability

We are not good at task management. We opt for tasks that are either enjoyable or tasks that have someone shouting at us. In other words, we aim for the most pleasurable tasks or try to complete the most painful.

But there is a lot of space between those extremes, and the "enjoyability" of a task shifts as it progresses. Learning a new skill is always exciting in the beginning. But as soon as we hit a challenge, we say to ourselves "I'll come back to that later" or "This other thing is high priority so I better get it done first". What was once exciting is now difficult and we find excuses to do something else.

A timeline can help keep us on track for tasks that were once enjoyable but now difficult. I'm much more likely to progress with a difficult challenge if I know someone will check-in on me. This is why universities use timelines. Whether an assignment or a subject is enjoyable or stressful, the timeline is there to place accountability on the student.

Accountability vs. Pressure

We hate the word "deadline". It conjures up images of late nights and long weekends with pressure from the boss. However, we can all agree that deadlines are needed most of the time to hold us accountable to progress. So what is the difference between holding someone accountable and pressuring them? Two things are important - the intention of the manager and the support received by the person who is accountable.

A manager who has the intention of getting to the goal as fast as possible and sees people as a means to that goal will treat them as such. This has the opposite effect of creating responsible work environments and causes people to be less accountable. The person who is under pressure without any support sees responsibility as a punishment and will opt out of it in the future.

However, a manager who has the intention of supporting his people to do their best work can produce an environment of accountability where each person understands the expectations and knows the people around them are there to support them instead of pressuring them. Therefore, deadlines by themselves are not enough to hold people accountable to their goals. The manager holds his people accountable by providing clear expectations on the goals together with the necessary support to set them up for success. Once this is done, the person feels a sense of empowerment and excitement to do good work instead of being afraid of extra responsibility.

Why should I put in a timeline when I know they'll slip?

Most timelines slip - it's the nature of the complex work we do. Something as certain as "today I'll have my lunch at 1pm" is not a sure thing. While one purpose of the timeline is to predict when something will be completed, another purpose is to make sure people are kept up to date and invite conversation.

When my 1pm lunch gets postponed, I know I have made the promise to my friend to meet them and so I must now make sure they know I'll be late or need to cancel. They might be disappointed, but not as disappointed if I never showed up. So sure, timelines make us commit to things that may not come true. But thankfully, if and when things do get postponed, those commitments enable us to have the conversation to discuss a new plan.

How does this apply to Learning + Development?

I repeatedly make the mistake of giving the impression that learning is optional. In many of my Learning and Development conversations, a new initiative can often be met with pushback.

  • We don't have time for that right now.
  • We have a tight deadline. (see my previous paragraph on tight timelines)
  • This isn't a priority for us.

In each response, there is valid feedback that makes me question whether the idea is worth the time invested. But often, teams and individuals will prioritise the tight timeline against the Learning + Development initiative. Why? Because the L+D initiative has no timeline.

  • Oh it's ok. You can take this at your own pace.
  • Get this done in your spare time.
  • There's not pressure to complete this course.

Now, let's make sure everything has a timeline and an estimated number of hours. The above responses change:

  • Anyone who signs up to this program will require 5 hours per week for 6 weeks.
  • The course will close in 8 weeks giving everyone plenty of time to complete.

Now, participants understand what they are signing up to. As the program progresses, check-ins help keep in touch and remind participants of the importance of their learning. The timeline has smaller checkpoints indicating progress in their knowledge. Each participant feels a sense of onus to progress (especially if they have to give updates in front of other people) and the program has a higher level of energy and participation.

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