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Mind of Jacka: False Deadlines

Mind of Jacka Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Jul 27, 2023

My wife is the political giver in our family. (Obviously, we’ll skip which parties and demographics. But, if you know me, you can guess.) That means she gets the tsunami of requests for giving, particularly when quarterly deadlines are approaching.

Now, I don’t know enough about any of this to understand the purpose of these deadlines — what they mean for the campaign, fundraising, filing, or the intricacies of trying to be a politician — but I know there is an incredible push at the end of each quarter to meet unfathomable deadlines and goals.

A couple of weeks ago, after one of those quarterly pushes, she was barraged with texts and emails advising that some candidates had made their goals and some had not. However, it didn’t matter which side of that fence the candidate was on, each one lamented the significant drop in giving that occurred after the quarter’s end.

Well knock me over with a hanging chad. Imagine that? You begged, pleaded, cajoled, and groveled, trumpeting the gardyloo that the end of the world would come if enough money wasn’t raised by quarter’s end. And now you can’t imagine why, after getting all that money, no one feels like playing any more.

And in a couple of months, the specter of the end of the quarter will raise its evil head again, and the begging will go on, and when the goals are met (or not met) there will be shock and begging because donations dropped off, and in a couple of months…

I consider myself a fairly savvy voter, but there is a whole lot I’ll never understand about politics.

As I discussed this with my wife, I suddenly recognized a parallel between this fundraising approach and an interesting phenomenon that occurred when I worked in Farmers Insurance Internal Audit. (And, thank goodness, I did make that connection. Otherwise, I’d have to take this screed to the screaming void that is Facebook. And we all know how much good that does.)

Every year we developed a most excellent schedule. The due dates for the audits were spread evenly throughout the year. Let’s say we had 24 audits. The idea was to complete two every month. Oh, we built slack around December because, well, who works then? But, otherwise, it was structured to look smooth as glass.

Until, of course, reality hit. And reality always hits.

When the quarterly audit committee meetings rolled around, we found ourselves scrambling to get enough work done to look like we were gliding smoothly on that glass rather than crashing through the thin ice it had always been.

If you looked at our April audit committee report, you would (hopefully) see the right proportion of audits — let’s call it six — completed in the first quarter. If you looked more closely, you would note that all but one or two were completed in March. And for the July meeting, all but one or two were completed in June. And in October, all but one or two were completed in September. You see the pattern here — a pattern that continued year after year.

Now, I could go into the problems, issues, and excuses that flew like startled bats throughout the department at each quarter’s end. Lots of excuses; no good reasons. But one of the hidden problems — one we didn’t even come close to recognizing — was the same problem exemplified by all that fundraising. “I just finished a bunch of audits in March in order to hit the deadline, and now you want me to finish some in April??!!”

And therein lies the hidden danger of arbitrary deadlines. Due dates for an audit committee report may not seem arbitrary — I mean, they are pretty important — but that does not mean that the due dates have any relation to getting the work done. And those due dates, no matter how stringently enforced, do nothing to solve the problem.

These are false deadlines, deadlines that exist for themselves — created to cause urgency without a strong connection to the work that needs to get done. In this case, false deadlines caused a sharp and unnecessary focus on work getting done at a certain point, resulting in work exhaustion and a decrease in quality. (“I don’t want it done right; I want it done now!”) And these false deadlines became self-fulfilling failures because they caused a series of swells and dells that couldn’t end until the deadlines did.

No doubt, there are urgent situations that require deadlines. (I still remember a few 12-hour days getting information for Department of Insurance requests.) And getting information to the audit committee has a certain amount of urgency. (File that one under “Understatements.”) But an audit committee should be able to see through this and ask a few questions, ones as simple as “Why are all the audits being completed at the end of the quarter?” and “Why are some taking so long and others being done in haste?” (I can’t speak to discussions held in our meetings; it was above my audit grade. However, I know it kept happening and happening and happening.)

But that is just one example. False deadlines are a crippling part of all work. Early due dates set to create a false sense of urgency, early due dates set because no one can ever hit the real ones, establishing recurring meetings that will beg for unnecessary content, making a due date important to a client because it is important to you, dates established “just in case,” and, as discussed, any recurring — monthly, quarterly, annual — series of due dates.

The list above shows how these false deadlines hide everywhere. And this is far from comprehensive. Watch for them and bring them to a halt. In fact, determine what problem they are ineffectively solving and address the real root cause. (Isn’t that what we do for a living?) And, if that isn’t in your power, start asking why those dates exist and do what is in our power to eliminate them.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.