3 Reasons Your Team Misses Their Deadlines & What to Do About It

The author, Douglas Adams once said … “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

According to a 2018 PMI (Project Management Institute) report, roughly 48% of projects don’t finish on schedule.  

Imagine, nearly half of all project deadlines are missed, resulting in increased costs, unhappy customers and ruins reputations and careers.  

What to do?

Here are three reasons deadlines are missed and what you can do to keep things or track:

1. Optimistic Planning Creates Unachievable Timelines

It is very human to be overly optimistic about how long it will take to complete a task.

This is called “planning fallacy.” (A theory developed in 1977 by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky)

Imagine your last project took 16 months to complete. It’s natural to assume you can do it in less time, because now you have more knowledge and experience.

But that optimism can quickly lead to missed deadlines.

Other causes of optimistic timelines are:

      • Assuming the project will go as planned, with no issues.
      • Not understanding how long it’s taken to complete similar projects.
      • Failure to realize constraints on resource.

How to Create Realistic Timelines

The key to a more realistic schedule is to rely on analysis and data.

If you’ve completed similar projects in the past, use that data as the basis for realistic estimates. The more data you have, the more confident you can be in your estimates.

If you don’t have enough past project data to guide you, then you can use the following methods:

Method 1: Use a multi-point estimation technique

Take multiple estimates and combine them to arrive at a more realistic timeline. For example, average:

      1. The most optimistic amount of time you think it will take.
      2. The most pessimistic amount of time you think it will take.
      3. The amount of time you believe it’s most likely to take.

Method 2: Engage your team to create ‘bottom-up’ estimates

A bottom-up approach to estimating requires that you build your timeline by having team members estimating each individual task and then combining them to arrive at an overall project estimate.

This ensures tasks they may understand but you may not be aware of are not over-looked.

And, you increase employee buy-in and confidence in the schedule.

Method 3: Build in Contingencies

By building contingencies into your schedule, you can help account for known and unknown risks, which will result in a more achievable timeline. It’s typically a flat 5–10% of the project cost and/or timeline added to the schedule baseline in case something unforeseen occurs.

2. Unclear Expectations Result in Missed Deadlines

If your team is unclear on when a deadline is, how can they meet it?

Communication problems can lead to you thinking your team understood their deadline when they didn’t.

Imagine the following conversation:

You: “Can you get this back to me by Thursday, at the latest?

Team member: “Well, I don’t know. There are may be defects, if I have to correct errors, then I doubt I’ll be able to complete this before Monday.

You: “Look, unless they’re critical, just leave the bugs and focus on this. I really need it no later than Friday.

Team member: “Alright, I’ll try my best.

Based on this conversation, the boss expects the task to be completed Thursday unless there are critical defects.

The team member believes they have till Friday, unless there are critical bugs, then Monday is the drop-dead deadline.

How to Communicate Expectations Clearly

Here are three ways you can ensure your team understands their deadlines.

Method 1: Use your project management systems

If you assign work informally or inconsistently, it can be easily misunderstood, forgotten, or considered unimportant.

When you hand out assignments verbally, people can easily forget about what was discussed or misconstrue your words. For instance, if you say, “I’d like to see this by the end of the week,” a team member may see that as a request and not a hard deadline.

When their name is assigned to a task in project the end date in the system allows for no question as to when their deadline is.

Method 2: Implement feedback loops

A feedback loop, or communication loop, is a simple process for ensuring what you’ve communicated has been heard and understood.

You ask them to repeat back to you what their deadlines are. In our hypothetical conversation, imagine if the team member was asked what the agreed-upon deadline was and replied: “Friday, unless there are critical defects, then Monday.”

You would have the opportunity to clarify expectations before missed deadlines.

Method 3: Conduct check-ins

The last thing you want is to discover after the deadline was missed that there was a misunderstanding as to when it was.

By incorporating periodic check-ins into your schedule, you’re achieving three things:

    1. Creating opportunities to remind employees of a deadline.
    2. Re-communicating the importance of that deadline.
    3. Creating opportunities for team members to give you feedback to so you better understand what is going on and identify potential problems and warning signs, without having to micromanage your team.

3. Poor Time Management

If you asked people how many hours a day they spend doing productive, project-related work, what answer would they give? Assuming an 8-hour work day, they may guess 7–8 hours.

But, research shows that this is a huge overestimate.

There are coffee breaks, bathroom breaks, smoke breaks and visiting.

In an average 8-hour work day, most people only accomplish 5 hours of productive work. Much of which is multi-tasking and constant interruptions.

In reality, your team is achieving less than 50% of their time doing uninterrupted productive work each week.

If you are assuming a 35–40-hour work week, but only achieving 12.5–25 hours of work, there is no wonder there are missed deadlines!

How to Improve Employee Time Management

Here are three ways you can help your team better manage their time and become more productive:

Method 1: Reduce time wasters

Have your employees record what and how they spent their time.

By tracking their own time for a few days, your team can discover time wasters and discover bottlenecks in the process, such as the time they’re forced to sit idle while waiting for reviews or approvals.

Or time spent in unproductive or unnecessary meetings. Consider giving your employees permission to attend only the meetings they are directly impacted by and allow them to excuse themselves from the unnecessary ones.  

Method 2: Eliminate distractions and interruptions

While being connected and accessible can boost collaboration and communication among the team, it can also detract from productivity.

Every time we’re interrupted, it destroys our focus, time that could otherwise be used to meet project deadlines.   

Here are three ways you can help your team eliminate distractions and interruptions:

    1. Encourage blocking time for specific tasks.
    2. Recommend employees only check email and messages at designated times.
    3. Provide a quiet, isolated space such as an empty office for employees working on anything complex or high-priority.  

Method 3: Avoid overloading your team

You may find that your team is still over-allocated, after all you can’t completely remove emails, meetings, and other interruptions.

Even if you can help your employees achieve 30 hours of productive work a week, you’re still overloading them by assuming a 35-40-hour work week in your schedule.

When people cannot get everything done in the time allotted to them deadlines will slip.

If your team members have too much on their plates, you will need to either increase the size of the team or push out the timelines.

If some of their workload is for another project or manager, ensure everyone is aligned on what is prioritized, and work together to agree to an attainable schedule.


Missed deadlines are all too common across all industries and businesses.

If your team is one of the nearly half of project teams with missed deadlines, it’s due to one of three problems: overly optimistic estimates, unclear deadline expectations, or poor time management.

Fortunately, all three of these are avoidable.

By following the advice above, you can ensure that your team doesn’t miss another deadline from here on out.