Commit or Evade? Building a Timeline for Change

On every project I work on, I recommend communicating the transition date as soon as it is known. Clear timelines are important:

  • They bring structure to an uncertain future: “I know on this date these things will happen.”
  • They enable planning: “I can figure out what needs to be completed before that date and allocate my time accordingly.”
  • It creates anticipation: “We are getting closer to a better future!” or “It will all be over soon!”

Several years ago I worked with a utility company that balked at my recommendation. They said, “We never hit our dates! They always move.”

Do you see the problem here? It’s not a communication issue. It’s a credibility issue. I was informed that even if we pointed to a specific date, no one would believe it. Which means there will be continued uncertainty, unreliable planning, and a distinct lack of anticipation. That is a HUGE problem. Those leaders needed to get their act together to improve their planning skills and delivery with some consistency.

We did opt to communicate vaguely, pointing to a rollout in Q3, then narrowing it to a month as we got closer. And, as predicted, we shifted the whole timeline again when the inevitable delay occurred. Self-fulfilling prophecy. No wonder engagement and readiness were low. All I could do was communicate the reason for the delay and then restart the countdown.

But what if the team is committed to their project date, yet fears being criticized for changes to the scope and plan along the way? After all, there are always modifications as we learn more and encounter challenges. Would that be another credibility hit?

When you are announcing a project, change, or giving an update with timelines, state:

  1. The target date. Give the date, and even the hour if your organization crosses countries and time zones.
  2. Your degree of certainty. Be honest about risks so people understand what could cause a delay. How likely are those risks? What are you doing to mitigate them? How can people help?
  3. That plans are subject to change. The plan laid out today will not remain the same. There will be changes. EXPECT THEM!

Repeat these 3 elements consistently, and if plans or dates change, remind them of these words. There may yet be people who cry foul, but honestly, they are disillusioned if they believe that reality is so predictable. The majority will get it, adjust their expectations, and carry on. Education makes allies.

Thoughtfully yours,
Jeff Skipper

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