Impossible deadlines: and how to overcome them

What’s that rather infuriating little phrase? Something like, “Difficult is done at once, the impossible takes a little longer.” – or numerous variations thereof!

Impossible deadlines might seem like a 21st century problem, but they’re actually nothing new. In fact, this phrase was first recorded in Anthony Trollope’s ‘Phineas Redux’ in 1873 – so you’d think we would have found a solution to all those sleepless nights in the last 150 years or so.

But the reality is that we haven’t, and being faced with a deadline that at first appears insurmountable can still be one of the hardest things to face in business. So we’ve put together some tips that will help you to handle those situations without missing a beat…

Why listen to us?

We see our client’s crises first hand, and we’re passionate about helping them to achieve their goals every time. Just a few weeks ago the marketing director of one of our largest clients called us on a Friday afternoon to say his sales director had landed one of those ‘impossible’ tasks on him, and could we help to pull it out of the bag yet again?

This time, it involved a pitch for a contract with a highly respected international brand, and the sales director thought a fast-paced, thought provoking video animation would tip the balance. The only problem? The meeting was just three days away.

You think that sounds like a long time? Well we can tell you, it isn’t. Three days to create a brand new animated video is no small task, even when you have those skills in house. So how did we do it?

Actually, we’re not going to answer that. How we fixed this specific problem isn’t the tale we want to tell – all you need to know is that we did, and the pitch was a success! But the story here isn’t what we did, it’s how we reacted when asked for ‘the impossible’, and how you can benefit from the same approach. Want to know more?


Time to get organised

Going back to that quote, it’s interesting to note that the phrase was adopted by the US Army during WW2 – and when it comes to impossible deadlines, we can tell you that some ‘military precision’ is just what’s needed.

Are you one of those naturally organised souls, with a spreadsheet for everything? Or are you a general ditherer who can’t quite remember what day of the week it is, yet somehow still manages to muddle through and come up smelling of roses?

Wherever you are on the scale in between, there are a few practical approaches which can make dealing with ‘the impossible’ just that little bit more . . . well . . . . possible!

Where shall we start? Most importantly, don’t panic. Well no, actually you can panic all you like, but you can’t let anyone see it – especially the person whose impossible deadline has just become yours.

The duck analogy comes into play here – serene and calm on top, but paddling furiously underneath! That’s needs to be you right now. Partly so you appear in control, but also because it has a knock-on effect on those around you. They are far more likely to provide the support you need if they have confidence that you’re ‘leading the charge’ in style.


‘Leave it with me’

Don’t you just love hearing that phrase? What a great sense of calm it invokes. Now it’s your turn to say it, and mean it. What happens next is up to you, but we’d recommend something like this, in six key steps:

1. Analyse – don’t rush into action and then find you’ve not actually understood the brief clearly enough.

Take time to digest the detail, and request clarification on anything that’s unclear or could slow things down. You may even find that there’s a better approach which saves time overall.

2. Prioritise – work out which elements will take longer, or have other dependencies, and get those moving first, rather than just starting at the top of the list.

Also think about which elements could be grouped together and handled in a similar way, meaning less duplication and a more efficient process.

3. Delegate – not just internally, but externally. Build a virtual team around you and make sure they are absolutely rock solid.

Know where to turn for every type of expertise that you might need, and build those long term relationships as part of your day-to-day role, so they are on hand when you’re faced with the impossible.

4. Communicate – but don’t call a meeting with everyone and their dog. In fact, avoid all meetings like the plague if you possibly can.

Don’t even set up a conference call. You haven’t got time to wait for a slot in everyone’s diaries! Work out who needs to know what and have each individual conversation as and when it needs to happen.

Also make sure you pass on clear guidelines to all third parties involved in the project so there is no danger of any detail being missed, or misunderstood. Want to create the perfect brief? Well, you’re in luck, keep an eye on our blog and you’ll soon know all the tricks of the trade!

5. Revise – it’s good to execute your plan with that military precision, but always leave room for manoeuvre.

Even in short timescales, opportunities for adjustments still appear – and you need to be ready to take advantage of any time savings that can be created. They may not be obvious on day one, but can have a big impact later on.

6. Summarise – we’ve always found that it’s worth planning a little time to take stock of what has been achieved so far.

To make absolutely sure that you’re going to deliver everything that was requested, and that nothing has slipped through the net. How annoying would it be to deliver bang on time with a fanfare, only to find something vital had been missed?

And lastly, when you deliver, do it in style and don’t let your hard work be taken for granted. It’s good to make it look easy while you’re pulling it all together, so you inspire confidence – but you still want everyone to know what an amazing feat you have achieved, after the fact. Make it look too easy and the next deadline will be even more impossible!


Do you have any tips on handling impossible deadlines? You may even have an agency that already manages these for you – if you do, are you happy with the solutions they provide? Share this post and then let us know your thoughts on Twitter and LinkedIn!