Setting Content Deadlines? Underpromise.

Calendar with date circled in redYou’ve all heard that saying that it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver than the reverse. Goes without saying, right? But you’d be surprised at how many times that’s not the approach with big content projects.

If  you’ve ever worked with Web content, you know that it’s a many-headed hydra. Just when you think you’ve chopped off one problem, three more spring out at you.

For that reason, I always  – repeat, ALWAYS – overestimate how long it’ll take to accomplish any content-related tasks, especially inventories, audits, editorial calendars, and scoping/producing new content.

Can I just repeat that? Underpromise.

It’s just a fact that no matter how quickly you think you can handle any of these tasks, something will come up to delay you. So estimate large. Be unrealistic. Why? Because if you deliver early, you’re a hero. And because your “realistic” estimate will almost certainly bite you in the posterior and turn you into the goat.

Here is the object lesson to tell you exactly WHY this is a good idea. I was recently engaged as a content strategist to work on a major content migration, with a redesign thrown in. The content was housed in a CMS (good). However, for technical and possibly political reasons, there was no easy way to get a data dump of all the valuable information in that CMS, including tags, personalization rules, security, and so forth (bad).

I piped up that given these challenges, I didn’t think we’d realistically be able to get a handle on our 6,000 pieces of content in time to support the migration by the date we had promised to the client. I was told, variously, that “This date HAS to happen,” “We’ve already promised the client and can’t change it now,” “Powers higher than us have set this date,” and “Nyah nyah nyah, nyah NYAH nyah!”

Over the next few months, I kept piping up. And kept getting told there was no way we could move that date out.

Meanwhile, rumblings started coming in from the client as it became clear that the content was in no way ready for migration. The project managers began losing sleep (and hair). The entire team began crumbling under the insane stress of working to meet a deadline that was so pie-in-the-sky it was ridiculous. (And still, no one wanted to change it.)

Finally, the client pulled the plug on the entire project.

We had an opportunity to set a padded launch date that would have given us room to amaze and delight by getting things done early. We then had an opportunity to go to the client, hat in hand, and say, “We’re sorry, but upon further examination this date doesn’t seem realistic. We apologize for the disappointment, but we’d like to push that date out to give us the time to do this thing right.” Instead, heads were stuck in sand, fingers were plugged into ears, and the mantra “But we have to meet that date!” was created.

The result? Months of back-breaking, crazy-making work down the drain, bonuses lost, goodwill drained, co-worker camaraderie extinguished, and egg on the face of the team. All because of an unrealistic deadline that someone put on paper and refused to change because it would make the team “look bad.”

How do we look now?

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