The Real Tao of Deadlines | October 12, 2007
The beauty of Taoism is that it’s a very holistic belief system. Rather than setting down rules and doctrines, Taoism focuses on the natural order of the universe. Nature has it’s own pace, so rather than struggling against the flow, Taoism teaches us to move with it. After all, a young sapling will bend with the wind while the mighty oak gets torn from its roots. Sometimes nature is an unstoppable force and the only way to survive is to understand it’s core essence and be flexible. The same could be said of many a web design project.
In a recent article entitled The Tao of Deadlines, Andy Rutledge lectures that “A designer must never miss a deadline”. While I agree with the sentiment and many of the suggestions, I think the conclusion shows a lack of understanding about then essence of projects and also the Tao.
Sometimes client deadlines are fixed in stone and immovable. These are usually based around some fixed date like a product launch or trade show. However even in these cases, you often find that deadlines are a lot more malleable if quality is at stake. More often than not, client deadlines are a manifestation of a clients desire to see progress. The project may have been on the drawing board for months, and have been the source of numerous discussions and internal meetings. After six months discussion, everybody is so keen to see the project finished, they are only too keen to set a deadline.
Client deadlines are often based on a rough assumption on how long they think a project should take. However, as most clients aren’t experts in design management, there is a very strong chance of underestimating the complexities involved and hence the time it will take. In a desire to please their clients, many design firms will go along with this conceit in order to win work. Unfortunately these agencies end up doing themselves and their clients a huge disservice by over promising and under delivering.
However, even if you are conservative in your estimates, it’s extremely easy to miscalculate deadlines. At the start of a project there are almost limitless possibilities. The Taosists refer to this state of pure potential as P’u (樸). No matter how much documentation the client has written, or how much research and planning you do, you are always operating on limited information. In fact, rather than helping, documentation can hide potential problems and obsfucate matters. Furthermore, what information you do have is often very subjective and open to interpretation. Because of this, the designer will make a best guess estimate based on their feel for the job, the client and previous projects they have worked on. The problem is, all projects are different, and time estimates are more art than science.
As a project progresses, more information comes to light. Issues will rise up and clarifications will appear. The closer you get to the final solution, the more precise your estimates will become. It’s like looking at a block of marble and imagining the statute enclosed within. In fact, the literal translation of P’u is the “uncarved block”. It’s not until you start chipping away that the final form starts to emerge.
I enjoyed Andy’s article, but think he fails to take into account the fundamental Tao of deadlines. Deadlines can stimulate creativity and drive progress. However they can also hinder the quality, virtue or Te (德) of the project. Sometimes designers need more time to think about a problem, developers underestimate the complexity of an issue, or clients are late with sign-off. This has nothing to do with running a bad project or being unprofessional. It’s just the nature of the task. As such, deadlines represent both the dark (Yin) and light (Yang) sides of the hill. They are useful tools, but shouldn’t inhibit the virtue of the project you’re working on.
Setting immovable deadlines is a bit like throwing a boulder in a stream to stem the flow. Water will always find a way around such obstacles. To take a true Taoist approach, you need to see deadlines as guides rather than immutable objects, and be prepared to adapt to an ever changing environment. In short, you need to bend with the wind rather than risk being up-rooted. This is the Taoist spirit of Wu wei, and one we should all strive for.
Posted at October 12, 2007 3:59 PM