When you miss a deadline, five times out of a hundred your boss will not notice and you’ll get away with it. Another five percent of the time, your boss will notice and will call you out on it. The other ninety percent of the time, your boss will notice, but will choose not to make an issue of it (yet) because humans naturally detest conflict. You’ll think you’ve gotten away with it when in fact your reputation will have suffered another self-inflicted body blow.
Don’t act like you didn’t do anything wrong. Apologies get a bad rap in the military. We’ve all seen too many movies where someone gets rebuked mid-apology with demands for “results, not apologies!” You don’t actually have to say the words “sorry” or “apologize;” a simple professional acknowledgement of your mistake says everything you need to say. It communicates that you understand and respect your boss’s requirements, that you’re mature enough to admit mistakes, that you care about your reputation, and that this is not how you do business. Don’t worry about alerting bosses to something they didn’t already notice—they noticed.
Being late is not a sign of being busy. The typical JO gets a lot of taskers from a lot of bosses. Extra-productive JOs get even more taskers from even more bosses (almost everyone believes they are in this second category). Some tasks are stupid and irrelevant. Some tasks look stupid and irrelevant, but are actually very important to someone in your chain of command. There is no reliable way to tell the difference.
Self-identified “extra-busy” JOs may become irreverent when assigned with something they identify as unimportant. It can be easy to feel justified in blowing off the seemingly dumb tasks. Don’t do it. You can’t just drop stuff—you have to communicate and work something out; call in friends for help if you have to. A failure to deliver is a failure to deliver—nobody will sympathize with your feelings of burden. Late people are not productive people.
Signal. Your bosses need to know immediately when a product looks like it’s going to be late. They may have padded the deadline with several days of buffer, or they may have substantial plans resting on the assumption that you will deliver on time. The important thing is that you don’t know, can’t know, and can’t assume the relative importance of your boss’s deadline. You have got to keep them informed.
They won’t always react in the way that you’d prefer. I specifically remember one instance where I owed the XO some (ultimately not-that-important) ship’s instruction on classified material security procedures. The due date was Friday morning, and it had been assigned on Monday. By Thursday afternoon, after four consecutive days of the typical inane, time-consuming crises, I asked the XO if I could have the weekend to work on it. Deciding that I hadn’t budgeted my time judiciously, XO denied me the extra time. Friday morning was the deadline; I had to go figure it out.
So Thursday was an all-nighter. Not the first, nor would it be the last. I may have been a zombie on Friday morning, but I turned in the most impressive classified material security instruction the Navy has ever seen. It collected dust in the XO’s inbox for the next week.
This is precisely the scenario that makes JOs want to just take the hit for being late. Asking forgiveness for a missed deadline can sometimes seem like a better option than going without sleep or calling in friends for help. You have to guard your reputation, though. XO didn’t really need that instruction, but he never micromanaged me after that day. The short-term pain was a down payment on long-term trust and operating latitude.
Good, bad, or ugly, keep your bosses apprised of the status of their tasking. It alleviates their anxiety (reducing micromanagement) and keeps the channels open for additional guidance (reducing rework).
Assign Deadlines. When your division breaks from quarters, every member should come away from it knowing who is doing what and by when. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, most people prefer deadlines to open-ended tasks, because they communicate priority and help constrain the problem. Many jobs will expand to fill the time allotted to complete them, meaning that without a deadline they will slowly consume productivity with very little to show for it in the end.
Encourage feedback when assigning deadlines, and be willing to negotiate if your guys ask for more time. This makes the deadline more like a tacit agreement than a top-down assignment, which short-circuits potential excuses and builds buy-in . It also builds trust that when you’re not willing to budge on the deadline, you really need it.
More importantly, demand to be informed the instant that a deadline’s feasibility comes into question, and be relentless about it. This not only keeps you informed, but by pulling the consequences forward it encourages responsible time management. If you keep to this religiously, it will severely cut back on the late work and excuses.
Finally, decide ahead of time how you’re going to handle it when the deadlines get missed. Are you going to ignore it? Are you going to make a scene about it? The answer is probably somewhere in between, and its best to prepare for this eventuality from a non-emotional state. As usual, it really pays off to establish a high standard early-on and then to carefully protect it.