We like tobully deadlines. Pick on them; make fun of them; even spit on them sometimes. But what a terrible thing to do. Deadlines are actually our best friends.
I haven't always felt this way. I used to think that deadlines should be ignored until the product was ready, that they were a nuisance, a hurdle in front of quality, a forced measure to get something out the door for the good of the schedule, not the customer.
But I've changed my mind. Now I see that deadlines serve quality, rather than being an obstacle to it. Deadlines are great for customers, because having one means they get a product, not just a promise that someday they'll get a product. Deadlines help you ship, and as Steve Jobs liked to say, "Real artists ship."
The key to making deadlines work in your favor is realizing that you have to be flexible with something else. The best thing to bend is scope. A fixed deadline and a flexible scope are the crucial combination. Get to know that pair, and play them together, and you'll discover the secret to shipping.
As I write this, we're just weeks away from shipping Basecamp 3--the third major version of Basecamp in 12 years. Whenever we create an all-new Basecamp, it's a very big deal. A huge project, a complete redesign, a rewrite from scratch. It's a venture that takes all the resources we have--time, attention, and people--to pull off. We usually go all-in for about a year to make it happen.
Months ago, we set a deadline of October 20 for the new release. That would be the ship date. That would be when Basecamp 3 hit the market. But now, in early October, it would be easy to say "move the deadline," because we're not quite ready. We need just a little more time. Just another month. We're almost there, but not quite.
That's always the case when you're talking about software. There's always a new idea. There's always something you can change. There's always something you can make better. So there's always an excuse to push the deadline.
But I see an approaching deadline as an opportunity to get ready to be great. When a deadline is nearing, it's the perfect time to put on your editor's hat and start cutting. What's essential? What can wait until later? What doesn't need to be there? What features can we hold to make sure that whatever we do deliver is tight and right?
A deadline encourages quality because it forces you to trim. Then you're left with less surface area to cover. And that gives you a real chance to polish what's there and make sure it's ready to go. Think about how much better a 400-square-foot floor would look after eight hours of polishing than a 1,600-square-foot floor after an equal amount of work. Same time, same resources, but a quarter of the space to cover. You end up with more quality per inch, which is what we want when we ship Basecamp 3.
In just the past couple of weeks, we've decided to trim some stuff we'd been working on that isn't ready. Rather than pour more energy into trying to get it ready, we're making the job easier--and the product better--by saying that this stuff won't make the cut. It just isn't important enough. We'll come back to it down the road if we decide it is important. Shipping has a way of telling you the truth.
So with a deadline in front of us, a bunch of work on the cutting-room floor, and a wonderful product just about set to go, we praise the deadline we set months ago. We're not the ones who are making Basecamp 3 great. It's the deadline.