The Punctual Pigeon (part 1)

The Punctual Pigeon: tl;dr / executive summary

Time deadlines (‘We’ll finish it in four weeks’) are a mistake. The Punctual Pigeon effect means you’ll finish close to whatever deadline you set at the start.

Task deadlines (‘we’ll finish it when it’s done’) will help you produce higher-quality work, and make you more productive, more efficient, and more profitable.

This is the first of three posts about an idea I’ve got used to describing as The Punctual Pigeon. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.

Part 1 is about why setting time-based deadlines is problematic.

Time deadlines: a self-fulfilling fallacy

We aim for time deadlines as though they were god-given – as though a project’s deadline is also, by some amazing stroke of fate, the optimal amount of time to be spent working on it.

The time deadline is a self-fulfilling fallacy.

That’s because the time deadline is set at the start of the project, before work has even begun – the point at which you have the least information available about how long the project is going to take.

Even if the deadline is shifted later on, when you have more information, it’ll shift in relation to the original deadline – which remains just as much of a guess as it was when you first set it.

Time deadlines are over-rated.

Always on time – or close to it

This focus on time deadlines is important. It is an almost immutable law that every project with a time deadline will finish either on time or no more than 10% late.

The Punctual Pigeon makes it so: it’s the effect which causes projects with a time deadline to home in on their due date.

When a project is running early, the brief will expand and the project will home in on its due date.

If a project is running late, the brief will shrink and/or the rate of work will increase, and the project will home in on its due date.

That’s the Punctual Pigeon at work.

You’ll never finish a project early…

If it’s running early and it’s a project you care about, you’ll keep adding stuff to make it better until it’s not running early any more.

If it’s running early and it’s a project you don’t care about, you’ll take your foot off the pedal until it’s not running early any more.

Either way, if you’re early, the Punctual Pigeon shows up and ensures that the earliest you’ll ever finish is, in fact, on time – so you won’t finish early at all.

… But you probably won’t finish too late either

If your project is going to finish really late, you or your client will change what counts as ‘finished’.

In fact, what counts as ‘finished’ changes the whole way along anyway – because the original project description is never fully detailed, so there’s plenty of room built-in for changes, and because throughout the process you keep reassessing what’s possible in the time remaining, then making changes to what ‘finished’ means accordingly.

So if you’re running late, the Punctual Pigeon shows up and ensure that the latest you’ll ever finish is about 10% late.

Why is the Punctual Pigeon a problem?

Time deadlines encourage mediocrity. They make you place punctuality above everything else.

Quality, productivity, efficiency, and profitability are all trumped by punctuality.

That’s bad for you, bad for your projects, bad for your employees, and bad for your business.

So what’s to be done? How can you escape the Punctual Pigeon?

[You can read part 2 of The Punctual Pigeon here]

Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

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