Deadlines: A love-hate relationship

“There is this trade show next month and we need to have a website live the week before. That’s not a problem, is it?” Of course it’s not a problem. Yes, we would have preferred to know about this sooner. Just like Christmas, this trade show probably occurs every year and chances are you did not find out about it just this week. We are flexible, though. We can switch resources around, hire freelancers, work extra hours. We are a digital agency and this is what we do. We meet your deadlines. In fact, I (and I don’t want to speak for all of my colleagues) I like deadlines. I need them. I don’t function well without restrictions on time and budget.

Learning from the game mechanics of basketball

In a recent episode of the “99% Invisible” podcast (do yourself a favor and subscribe to this wonderful little radioshow if you haven’t already) I learned that basketball used to be very slow. I am personally a baseball fan and often hear that people cannot stand it because “nothing ever happens”. Many of them like hockey and basketball because these are fast paced games. Until the 1950s, however, basketball players weren’t forced to play the ball. They could hold on to it if they were in the lead, running down the clock (which is sometimes an annoying part of soccer, another one of my favorite sports). Basketball games had final scores of 19:18 and TV networks weren’t going to broadcast games anymore because they were too boring.

Something had to be done and in 1954, the 24 second shot clock was invented by Danny Biasone, then owner of the Syracuse Nationals. How did he come up with 24 seconds? You can listen to the podcast to learn the details but basically he started with the prerequisite of 80 point scores, then divided up the game time by the number of shots a team would need to take in order to score those 80 points, thus creating a more exciting game. Players did not like this at first. After all, 24 seconds does not sound like much. But they adapted and now the audience gets to jump from their seats with every buzzer beater.

A shot clock for your brain storming sessions

Biasone’s method reminds me of our own process for project timings: clients have a deadline (mostly driven by external factors such as trade shows, just like the 48 minute duration of a game), we go backwards from there and calculate the time we have for each milestone. We deliver however much we can get done within that time. Of course there are quantitative restrictions. Your website cannot have the same amount of pages within a one month deadline as it could in six months (yes, that is true even if we were to put six times as many people on the job). But the quality of our work should never suffer from deadlines. And I believe it doesn’t have to. Creativity can thrive within restrictions.

You can set a shot clock in your ideation phase, although I would recommend to set it a little longer than 24 seconds. Many gamestorming techniques (I am not affiliated with them in any way but highly recommend checking out specifically work with time restrictions to set priorities and rely on instinct. Just because you have time to discuss an idea for hours doesn’t make it better. It may make it worse, though, if you water it down, discuss it with more and more stakeholders, tweak it a little here and there (see my other post “How not to lose a client over good design” on my experience with “tweaking”). Yes, like the basketball players rejecting the shot clock at first,  it may be scary sometimes to think that your team only has an hour to come up with a big idea. But I trust the bundled creativity in my team to come up with something amazing every time.

A few words to our clients

You may be reading this and think “Hmm, if they are so smart, creative, and fast we can save a lot of money and will still get great results.” Yes, you will. But it probably won’t include someone jumping out of a capsule with a parachute from space. It probably won’t be anything that has never been done before. Those ideas may be there in ten minutes, but production of something truly groundbreaking will probably take a little longer.

And there are some deadlines we truly hate: artificial ones. Please (and I plead with you) don’t have us send you a deliverable by Monday morning if you are not going to look at it before Wednesday. Please do not tell us that something HAS to go live by December 31st, making us cancel our Christmas vacations and then we find out that no one on your side was willing to do the same and the live date was not THAT crucial after all. Always be sure that your team can meet deadlines too, for briefings, feedback, and QA.

It is much easier for us to get excited about your project if we know that it is your #1 priority, as well. It’s no fun to be on the court by ourselves, with no one to pass the ball to before the clock runs out.

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