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When Will This Be Done?

We are always asked, “When will this be done?”. Sometimes by customers, sometimes by teammates. It can be tough to answer when we’re not sure if we can meet our delivery dates and deadlines.

Remember, everyone involved has the same goals – to understand the current situation and make plans to the best of our ability. The complexity of our work can make planning unpredictable, and that’s frustrating for everyone. But remembering that we all want the same outcome can help us respond in a compassionate way.

This post offers some tactics for responding clearly and concretely without making promises you can’t keep.

(Note that we use “customer” throughout this article, but our strategies apply to internal and external commitments.)

It’s Not About You

First, please don’t assume that this question means the customer isn’t happy with your velocity. (This is part of “don’t take things personally.”) Just because someone asks “when” does not mean they think you’re late, slow, or that your work should have been done already.

Often they’re trying to make their own plans. Or they’re trying to see if their promises are at risk. Part of responding to this question gracefully is to appreciate that the person asking it may be worried about their own performance, not yours. This is the context of their question.

Whenever possible, your response should address their question’s context first, and then provide a concrete date. A well-crafted response has two parts: a context-acknowledgment and a date.

Maybe we need more time, but don't yet know how much. You have options besides replying with a firm date or deadline.

Part 1: The Context

If it’s not about you, what is it about? Before even trying to answer the question, see if you can come up with some scenarios for why they’re asking. While it’s never a good idea to make assumptions about the intentions of others, if you have the information to make an educated guess, it can help to inform the way you take responsibility when you answer the “date” question. 

Sometimes we’ve already made a broad promise or know the customer’s internal deadline. For example, a customer may need to deploy “by the end of October,” or they may be waiting on our work so they can start their new project. In these cases, we always want to reassure them that we remember their deadline and can still meet it.

Remembering to restate what’s important to the person asking is like remembering to address them by name: it signals that we’re paying attention and that we care.

Here are some examples of concerns a customer might have, and how you could address them:

  • Is there a larger deadline on this work or project that they might be concerned about meeting?
    • “We’re still on track to deploy this before your end-of-October deadline, but I don’t know enough right now to give you a firm date. I’ll know more by Monday at 2pm Pacific, and I’ll reach out then to tell you when we can deploy this for you. Thanks for your patience.”
  • Is this person trying to see if their existing promises (to a boss, customer, etc.) are at risk?
    • “I know several of your staff members are using an inconvenient workaround while waiting for this feature, but I don’t know enough right now to give you a firm date. I’ll know more by Monday at 2pm Pacific, and I’ll reach out then to tell you when we can deploy this for you. Thanks for your patience.”
  • Is this person trying to make plans, and wondering if it is safe to have them depend on your deliverable?
    • “I know you need to finalize your fourth quarter budget before September 15, but I don’t know enough right now to give you an educated estimate. I’ll know more when this chunk of work is done, and I can commit to having that for you by Monday at 2pm Pacific. I’ll reach out then to give you a better estimate of what’s yet to come. Thanks for your patience.”

Look out for instances where you might be apologizing or find yourself tempted to explain how difficult your work has been. These are signs that you’re focused on defending yourself and not focused on why the customer is asking. Customers can tell when you’re more interested in looking good than helping them make plans.

Part 2: The Date

Here are some options for including a delivery date in your response. The first options are the most precise; subsequent options are for when you are less sure about when your work will be done.

Option 1: Confirm Our Original Promise Date & Deadline

Ideally, we already gave the customer a date when we’d deliver, and this is your opportunity to confirm it.

By date, of course, we mean a date, time, and timezone. This is usually only an option if you’ve been working for a while and both of the following are true:

  1. You have the finish line in sight, and
  2. You have blocked off the time you’ll need between now and the finish line.

If both of those are true, it’s an easy answer. Something like:

  • “I can confirm that this is on track as originally agreed, and I will have it for you by Monday at 2pm Pacific.”

If those aren’t both true, you can turn to Option 2.

Option 2: Respond with a Modified Date or Scope

If we need more time, you should always try to provide two options: suggesting a new date for delivering the original promise, or delivering on the original date but including a subset of what we initially promised.

Maybe we need more time, but you don’t yet know how much more time. That’s what this article is for: several other options are available besides replying with a firm date or deadline. =)

Responding with a modified date is an option if:  

  1. You have the modified finish line in sight, and
  2. You’ve blocked off the time you’ll need between now and the new finish line.

Responding with a modified scope is an option if:

  1. You have enough information to propose a subset of the original promise, and
  2. You’ve blocked time between now and the original delivery date to complete the subset.

If these things aren’t true, you can’t respond using this option and need to use one of the other options below. Even if the above conditions are true, pad the date – add some shock absorbers into your schedule – so you don’t have to be performing at your highest level nonstop to make that deadline. You’re already modifying the promise, so it’s best to make the new promise one that you can achieve comfortably and confidently.

You may want to say something like:

  • “Unfortunately, I don’t think we will be able to deliver as originally promised. Here are two options for how we can proceed. First, I can commit to delivering <smaller chunk> by the original deadline of Monday at 2pm Pacific. Alternatively, I can commit to delivering what we originally discussed by a week from Monday at 2pm Pacific. Please let me know which you would prefer.”

Once you agree on a new date or scope, put it on the calendar so you don’t lose track of your promises.

Option 3: A Date for Next

Often a customer wants to know when their whole feature will be completed, but we’re working in small chunks and can’t see past the chunk we’re working on. It’s OK to tell them that: we never want to lie to the customer or pretend we know more than we do.

  • “I should have <small chunk> done by Monday at 2pm Pacific and then will be moving on to <next small chunk>. I really can’t see past that yet to give you a firm delivery date for the whole project.”

You can then suggest delivering the small chunk, if that would help them, or suggest Option 4, a “Date for a Date,” picking a date that should be after you’ve completed a few more chunks. 

Again, if your communication with the customer includes a date, be sure to put the date on your calendar. Restate any customer deadlines you’re aware of so they don’t worry that we’ve forgotten them.

Option 4: A Date for a Date

Sometimes, we simply don’t have everything we need to give someone a completion date. This can happen when we’re working with a complex problem, or even when we’re working on a different project and aren’t focused on the request at hand. In this case, you can say something like this:

  • “I don’t know enough right now to give you a firm date; I’ll know more by Monday at 2pm Pacific, and I’ll reach out then with a deployment date. Thanks for your patience.”

Again, please put that promised date on the calendar and make sure you’ve scheduled time between now and then to work the problem and come up with your deployment date.

Option 5: Wishlist for a Date

Often, we need something from the customer before we know how long our work will take. Maybe it’s a clarification of their requirements; perhaps it’s their approval of our last delivery. Their request for a delivery date is an excellent opportunity for us to ask them again for what we need, providing we don’t shame them for not having given it to us already. Remember, they aren’t calling us out for our velocity, so we don’t need to defend ourselves with things like, “we were prepared to deliver this next week but haven’t yet received…”

Here are a couple of ways to ask for things without shaming them:

  • “I don’t have enough information yet to commit to a delivery date. If you can get me the following items, I’ll be able to get you more information once I’ve reviewed them: <list>.”
  • “I’d like to know a bit more about what’s ahead of us before I commit to a date. Could you send me the following so I can get the whole picture? <list>.”

Suppose you’re really having trouble getting things from people. In that case, you can be explicit that our work is conditional upon receiving their materials: 

  • “I’m still hoping to look at the items we requested so I can know how much work is required. If you can get me those by <date, time, timezone>, I’ll get back to you with an estimate by <date, time, timezone>. I hope that gives you enough time. Here are the items we’re waiting for: <list>.”

When You’ve Missed a Deadline

Missed a deadline? Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. While most of us default to any question about delivery dates with an apology, sometimes we have missed a deadline, and our customer deserves an apology. The key is to apologize, be specific about the context, and move on. 

Instead of something generic, like, “I’m sorry; I know you wanted this feature to deploy last week.” Try being more specific:

  • “I’m sorry we weren’t able to deliver this last week as promised. I know this feature is essential to your new order process, and I want to make realistic promises so you can make your plans.”

The formula for a missed deadline is the same as any other request. When you apologize, including the customer’s specific context in your apology signals that you’re focused on their needs, not on saving face. Read the Things to Avoid section below and make sure your apology fits. Then select one of the “Date” options above, letting the customer know when you’ll be able to deliver or when you’ll be in touch again with more information.

Things to Avoid

This isn’t about you. Don’t assume that you’re being called out for your velocity. Remember that their question is about the information they’re missing – what they need to orient or reassure themselves within their own schedule. It’s likely not about your performance.

Don’t describe how difficult the work is, or make excuses. It’s ok to say that your team has been working hard or to briefly acknowledge that something has been more complex than expected. However, if you find yourself listing the difficulties you encountered, your customer will feel you’re avoiding taking responsibility and may have a harder time trusting your updated promise. 

Don’t use shame as a lever. When customers don’t meet our expectations, we can ask them outright for what we need. We don’t use shame to regain power in the situation.

Don’t pretend to know more or be more certain than you are. We have no interest in making the work seem simpler than it is or making our schedule seem simpler or more available. Some things are hard to wrap your head around, and some projects are hard to estimate. Our clients pay us to do hard things.