Moonshot Deadlines

Have you ever wanted to spark urgency in your team and drive them towards the impossible? If so, you may want to try something I call a “moonshot deadline”.

Moonshot deadlines are the quadruple espressos of the deadline world. To choose a moonshot deadline, you must ignore your gut instinct and pick a date that feels brutal. It should be orders of magnitude more aggressive than a traditional deadline. If a normal deadline is five weeks, a moonshot deadline is five days. Aiming high is key, as we’ll see below.

When you challenge your team with a moonshot deadline, magical things happen. After some initial panic, the team begins to work together to rise to the challenge. Favours are called in and the team swells with extra helpers. The to-do list is whittled down to the essentials, as there is only time for critical tasks. Competing activities are shelved, distractions are ignored, and total focus is paid to the task at hand. In short, the team shifts gears and operates at its peak. They begin to believe.

Unfortunately, this faith is misplaced. Your team will probably fail. I’ve tried this moonshot approach several times and every time we missed the deadline, by some margin. So why do I like moonshots? Because when you aim high and fall short, you still finish way ahead.

I recently used a moonshot deadline to tackle a floundering marketing project that had failed to get off the ground. The latest discussions suggested it would be weeks before completion if we kept going at this pace. On the train home, I decided it was moonshot time and set a deadline for the following Monday – two working days later.

The choice of date was not arbitrary. Monday was outrageous, but not categorically impossible. We would have to reprioritise tasks and skip non-essentials. We might have to work a bit late. But if everything came together, just right, it was feasible.

As we got underway, the looming deadline forced us to make more efficient decisions. We couldn’t agonise over creative content because there wasn’t time –- we used material we already had, which was more than good enough. We identified which external agencies could move at our pace and deferred the others to a later phase. We also knew a single hold-up could make or break this deadline, so we batted them out of the way in advance. For instance, our purchasing team was pre-primed to process the incoming quotes as soon as they arrived.

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, we missed the Monday deadline. And yet, the project was completed later that week, a mere five days after we started and weeks ahead of the original schedule. This wasn’t merely the result of reprioritization; this project was smashed out in record time because people had moved at the speed of light. The process had been exhausting, but it was a useful reminder of how quickly we could move when needed. It also helped to reframe our other deadlines, which we now viewed with mild suspicion - could we not achieve those sooner as well?

Hopefully it’s clear from this brief overview that moonshot deadlines don’t suit every project. If every deadline was a moonshot, burnout would reign supreme. Or people would start to ignore you. But every now and then, you can use one to spark a fire and move faster than you can imagine.