How to talk about deadlines

2 Jun 2021

How often do IT teams accept impossible deadlines? Too often. This is bad for the IT team because it increases workload and stress. It is also bad for the business stakeholders who end up missing their delivery dates.

A typical scenario: The business says a solution must be ready by X. The IT team must figure out how to make it happen.

This sounds like a problem caused by the business being unreasonable. But it’s not. The IT teams have an equal role in this situation. Too often they accept deadlines as mandates and don’t discuss them with the business.

The key to solving this problem is knowing how to talk about deadlines.

What are deadlines and delivery dates?

Deadline and delivery date are often interchangeable. For many people, they mean the same thing. I believe that deadlines are set by people or circumstances outside our control. Missing a deadline has pre-defined consequences.

Some examples of this include:

  • Being in compliance by a specific date otherwise, an outside agency will fine us
  • Turning up at court on the date set by the judge
  • Updating a website warning notice to be in compliance with new government regulations
  • Tax submissions

By comparison, delivery dates are something we can influence. Delivery dates don’t usually have predetermined consequences if the date is missed or moved.

Some examples of a delivery date, where the impact of missing the date is less clear, include:

  • Releasing a software update with new features
  • Completing product testing
  • Providing status updates and reports

But, as with most things, there are exceptions to both of these so it’s best not to overthink it. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to them as ‘deadlines’ from here on.

Why do IT teams need to talk to the business about deadlines?

To understand the deadline

Not all deadlines are created equal. This is something that IT leaders learn early in their careers. They also recognise that knowing a deadline date is not the same thing as understanding it. Never accept a deadline without understanding what’s behind it.

Understanding deadlines is critical to support good planning and prioritization.

To influence the deadline

IT exists to serve the business. That service cannot be successful if IT says yes to everything. There will always be conflicts, prioritization, impractical or even impossible delivery requests. All these things need open discussion with the business stakeholders.

It has been my experience that an open discussion can lead to changes in deadlines. But only when business and IT stakeholders understand the reasons for the deadline.

To discuss the priority against other deadlines

Most IT teams don’t have enough capacity to deliver all the requested work. Planning what to work on requires prioritisation. Prioritisation is only effective when the details about each deadline are well understood.

To ensure the Business stakeholders understand their role in achieving the deadline

When the business sets a deadline there are usually things the IT teams need from the business. For example, it’s hard for an IT team to deliver ahead of a deadline without requirements, testing scenarios, content, source data, budget, and final approval.

Being given a deadline by the business is the start of a conversation. The next step is to talk about all the other sub-deadlines required to achieve the delivery date. As an IT team, you need to inform the business of the deadlines for the things you need. This is the only way to ensure you can deliver the thing they need.

How to talk about deadlines and delivery dates

Ensure you understand the deadline by asking these questions:

  • Is it a deadline with consequences, or the desired delivery date?
  • What is the impact of missing the date?
  • Is the deadline unmovable?
  • What other work is reliant on this being done?
  • How does this deadline compare with the other deadlines for work already planned or in progress?
  • Is the deadline for the solution to be live in production?
  • Ask other questions as appropriate

Identify if you need to influence the deadline (and if you can)

  • Does the deadline conflict with something else you have underway or planned?
  • Is the deadline reasonable given the current resources (time, people, budget) available in your team?
  • If there are no conflicts and the deadline is reasonable you might not need to influence it
  • If there are conflicts, use the information learned in step 1. Try and influence the deadline to meet your team’s needs as well as the business goals

Determine if you need a prioritization discussion

  • Find out if the new deadline request is not possible without changing current or planned work. (you may have identified in the previous step)
  • If current work is not impacted, skip this step
  • If current work is impacted, have a priority decision with the impacted stakeholders
  • Make sure you have the priority discussion soon. Waiting only makes it harder to change deadlines

Create, share, and discuss the deadlines you need to give the business

  • Create the list of deliverables and engagements you need from the business
  • Discuss the list with them — it’s a discussion, not a dictation. Just like the business cannot demand things from IT, IT cannot demand from the business either

If you want to talk about changing a deadline after the work is in progress, check out How to talk about delays.


All work is time-bound. Deadlines and delivery dates help us focus on what comes next. They are useful for defining priority and giving everyone a target to work towards. But that doesn’t mean deadlines are always fixed. Changes are possible, and business teams do understand that not all deadlines can be met.

Delivery date changes can only happen when the IT teams first seek to understand the reasons behind a deadline. That supports an informed delivery date discussion with the business teams.