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


Simon Collison said on October 12, 2007 4:38 PM

I think certain generalised viewpoints like some of those in Andy R’s article are unhelpful, and I refute this belief that all design/development jobs can be approached in the same way, or that a set of rules can be applied in all circumstances, which is a common theme in this kind of generalised commentary. Must we template our processes?

In my opinion, when you and your team are on the front line, job after job, and with all the anomalies that come along, this kind of “think-piece” is often irrelevant.

I still have a problem with phrases like “The Tao of Deadlines”, that old ALA article “The Dao of Web Design” and even “The Zen of CSS Design” etc (those last two sure have the content though). Its fun to get flowery, but does it help?

Sorry, bad day today. Much respect to Andy R of course, and it is probably healthy to find disagreement rather than just acquiesce.

Andy Rutledge said on October 12, 2007 5:19 PM

Thanks Andy. I appreciate and enjoy the counter-view presented thoughtfully, like this. I can also appreciate your disagreement with certain aspects of my argument.

The thing about details, like tiny particles, is that it doesn’t take much to change how they relate to one another. So in that vein, I’d suggest given that each project is a unique organism with unique requirements and context, it stands to reason that the designer/agency should account for the detail such that the deadlines are made so that they are achievable—specific to the project at-hand.

The underlying thesis to my article’s argument is that these things should be accounted for BEFORE any deadlines are set. But once they’ve been set, it’s a professional’s responsibility to keep promises.

Flexibility is useful, even required. But allowing intelligent planning to be replaced by flexible deadline management is like replacing an appointment time with being available by cell phone. Sure, it can mitigate unplanned changes, but it’s damned impolite and irresponsible.

I’m not suggesting that you’re arguing in favor of such things, but details can be rearranged very easily to create new conclusions. And that’s part of what I think your response does. So I certainly cannot disagree with how you’ve arranged the details, but I don’t necessarily think that your argument obviates my own.

Thanks very much, though, for your further examination of these issues. Good stuff.

Mike Stenhouse said on October 12, 2007 5:22 PM

To quote one of my workmates: “If you think you understand the problem then you clearly haven’t thought about it enough.” If you’re doing something complex then understanding is iterative - more like a fractal than a straight line graph. That’s not every problem, obviously, but all the interesting ones have unknowns… Estimating is a “hard problem”, in the programming sense.

Benjamin Hirsch said on October 12, 2007 8:34 PM

I really love this article and I wish you had gone even more into it. This is something I have been thinking about for years but never could put into words. I find that there is so much commentary these days on productivity and using systems to achieve big tasks. ‘Getting Things Done’ is an example of this.

Every project needs to be approached differently, with finesse.

I just wish there was a good way to explain this philosophy to clients.

Paul Annett said on October 12, 2007 10:50 PM

The nature of uncarved blocks
is how to describe what’s hard to describe.
Vinegar taster says:
the more force I apply the more trouble I make.

Borgar said on October 13, 2007 12:43 AM

Not only do I agree with this, I’m also thrilled to be finally reading a “the tao of” article by someone who actually gets taoism.

Great article!

Angelo said on October 13, 2007 1:16 AM

Fundamentally, this seems to be a clash of semantics. Milestones and deadlines are both essential parts of most projects.

It is our job to balance the milestones with the project deadline(s) and make a judgement call as to whether or not the project is achievable given the known constraints.

As milestone estimation is an art, every possible situation simply cannot be accounted for in the planning stage of any project.

Breaking from the mold of traditionally accepted project implementation and adhering to agile design and development practices has been the most helpful way for me to adjust to deadline constraints.

Simply: Work smarter, not more.

mark lloyd said on October 15, 2007 5:49 AM

You’re spot on here!

Anyone else remember high school (or college for the americans) doing assesments at the very last minute, i found i worked better under pressure and deadlines. I tried a few times to do them earlier but struggled with ideas.

Same applies to web dev, under a tighter schedule my mind is more actively finding solutions and coming up with creative design.

Ian Clay said on October 17, 2007 1:58 AM

hold water
above a dry stream
leaf falls