In my most recent article, I wrote about never missing a project deadline. The premise is, basically, that by having a better understanding of what a deadline is in the first place, you can ensure deadlines work for you not against you. It is a nice sounding concept of course, but in reality it will always come down to the way we work with deadlines and the way we work will always come down to the tools we use.
Working with what you have
In a perfect (read: make believe) world, a project manager can choose from a large range of amazing project software options and will always select the right tool to best suit their project.
Of course the reality is far different and (as I tell my kids) you get what you get and you don't get upset. So we work with whatever our organisation might have lying around or, if you're lucky, has bought for the specific purpose of project management.
Using Jira for project management
According to the 14th annual state of agile report, most organisations will use Jira for project management. This is perhaps because Jira may have come into organisational use as a flexible issue, service or work management tool which has been repurposed for all things including projects. It could also be that Jira is a deliberate choice, selected based on a specific approach to delivery which Jira enables. Either way, for most of you, project and deadline management will be managed using Jira's, whether that use be good, bad or 'meh'.
Jira project and program challenges
For certain initiatives and processes, the use of Jira is straight forward. However for projects or programs of a certain type, size and complexity, Jira will have limitations. More challenging than feature limitations however is finding the best way to use Jira where, the flexibility of the tool creates more ways than one to do things.
Multiple deadlines and dependencies
This is particularly true in projects where there are multiple deadlines and dependencies to contend with and Project Managers and project teams will develop workarounds or bespoke Jira use which will cause problems for an organisation in the long run.
You don't want excel
The more this happens, the more you will see project delivery quality start to suffer. Ultimately you don't want to see a productivity tool like Jira start to become counterproductive and you certainly don't want teams working around Jira in Excel (the second most used project 'software' According to the 14th annual state of agile report).
3 challenges when managing deadlines in Jira
Jira challenge 1: central ‘intelligence’
One of the most common issues I have faced managing project deadlines in Jira where I needed to is not in any way related to Jira functionality. Instead it has come from wrapping cumbersome centrally imposed processes (such as from a PMO or Project Coach) around a basic project process.
Have you ever had this conversation as a Project Manager?
Project Manager (PM): But why do I need to use Jira that way?
Coach / PMO: Because this is best practice.
PM: According to who?
Coach: It’s in this book I read once about projects and I’ve convinced senior management this is the best way and they agree.
PM: But have you actually used this in a project?
Coach: I don’t do projects - that’s what I coach you to do.
Using Jira the right way for the project
In my last article I quoted Ron Jeffries (one of the authors of the Agile manifesto) who said that deadlines are a management responsibility. This is an important principle, however there is a risk that management not only imposes the deadline but also delegates responsibility on how to achieve it to an assurance layer of the organisation rather than the Project Manager.
The net result is that the project is directed on how to use Jira rather than how to use it in the most effective way for the project. The value a Project Manager can get through Jira is eroded and while the deadlines might be met, it comes at the cost of administrative overheads and some very frustrated project teams.
How to get the best out of Jira?
As a starting point, if your Jira use and administration is not defined by your Project Managers and project team but is instead defined by your PMO or Agile Coach ‘centre of excellence’, rethink immediately. Your Jira admins who would set the parameters for your Jira use should be the practitioners that live and breathe it every day.
Centralised administration is fine but keep it as a support function not an oversight one, and that is a very good start to getting the best from your software. If you want to get an idea on how important this is, search almost any query on Atlassian Communities and see how many are related to a user not having the relevant admin rights or permissions.
Rather than focusing on the deadlines themselves, central governance over deadline management in Jira can ideally be focused on the options of your Jira Boards for example, what estimation metrics to use, and so on.
This step is important given how fundamental estimates and tracking are to any project.
Jira challenge 2: estimates do not equal deadlines
So, estimation process and metrics in Jira - big tick and you're off and racing with a nice dashboard to monitor things as you go. But wait, why am I sweating over the estimate now? Why are those outside the project holding my estimate up like a contract for delivery?
This comes down to the way estimates are presented by the project and the maturity of the organisation with respect to using them.
So while estimation should be part of your project set up in Jira, don’t rely on that as the only data point your stakeholders can use to measure progress. If you only have an estimate, it is highly likely that it will also be treated as your deadline.
How to ensure estimates don't become deadlines?
Ensure estimation techniques are well defined but also think about project communication and spend as much time as you need making sure your Product Owner, Project Sponsor and anyone else who cares, are clear on the subject.
Establish a separate set of techniques and metrics that cannot be confused with estimation and establish a new data point for time management (related to but not exactly the same as task management). In Jira this can be done with the ‘due date’ field or ‘end date’ field (of 'fields' plural given there are quite a lot of end date types in Jira).
Ideally these fields are available for you to use whenever you create an issue / story or task however they are usually not a default. This probably goes to show it is not an often used field in many Jira projects - something worth thinking about.
How to add and manage fields in Jira?
For whatever reason, the management of fields is not the most straightforward of processes in Jira and there are multiple ways to do it. The easiest I have found is:
- Within your project go to Project settings > Issue layout.
- Under the Issue types in this project section click on a hyperlink the says These issue types show the fields defined in PA: Scrum Default Issue Screen.
- In the Select field picker in the bottom of the list find and select ‘Due Date’ field.
Final step > have a lie down as that was a marathon to add that little field. When you get back up - remember my point about Jira admins outside the project team. If you don’t have admin permissions you will not be able to find the settings let alone change them.
So why go to such lengths to add the due date field. Remember Parkinson’s Law? Managing deadlines should not be about when the work is estimated to be completed but can be applied to shrink the available time to align a resource or the team around a date you control.
Jira challenge 3: email spam!
The last problem to avoid in Jira is hopefully the most basic and ideally, one that should be applied to absolutely everything. No...more...emails...please!
Managing deadlines is a proactive technique not a reactive one so turn off the damn notifications!
Limit your impersonal interactions
To bring that to life in a less emotional way; according to the Radicati Group Inc., the total number of business and consumer emails sent and received per day is forecast to grow to over 333 billion by year end 2022. Every process you undertake in your project should be about limiting impersonal interactions such as emails and consider integrations with collaboration tools like Slack as good options instead of emails. If you can't live without (more) emails, at least look at the Jira integration for Outlook to try and keep your data and workflows intact.
Final Word - are deadlines the best way?
Jira is not built for deadline management and will require quite a bit of effort to set it up to enable, not hinder your team. As a result, it is worth considering if managing your project with deadlines (instead of other time management techniques) is going to be that effective and worth the effort. Make your tools and your deadlines work for you, not the other way around.