Contingency planning for botched work days and deadlines

Anyone who has stepped foot in a corporate work environment in the past 10 years is familiar with the phrase contingency plan. It’s the piece of your project where you try to determine ahead of time what you and/or your team will do when things go wrong. What will you do if a vendor doesn’t provide the quality of product you expected? What will you do if information is not received on time from the client? What will you do if a member of your team is ill and can’t make it to the sales meeting? What will you do if bad weather leads to your flight being cancelled?

You can drive yourself batty if you create a contingency plan for every possible step of the process that can go off course. A good way to determine if a step of the process needs a contingency plan or not is to estimate how much time it will take you to come up with an alternative if something does go wrong and determine which will be less expensive and a better use of your time: Creating a contingency plan during the project planning stage or simply handling the solution on the fly if/when a problem develops? If it is less expensive to create a contingency plan before you start work on a project than it is to solve the problem on the fly, do it. If it is more expensive to create a contingency plan before you start work on a project than it is to solve the problem on the fly, don’t do it. If it will save you time and money to come up with a contingency plan for a backup conference location if a hurricane destroys your conference hotel, create a contingency plan for an alternative site location. If it will waste your time and money to come up with a contingency plan for an alternate restaurant to deliver dinner to you at your desk on Tuesday night when you’re working late, don’t create a contingency plan. In short, the more important the element is to your project, the more likely you are to need a contingency plan.

Large projects aren’t the only areas of your work experience that can benefit from contingency planning. When you sit down at your desk first thing in the morning, you probably review and create a list of tasks you would like to accomplish by the end of the day. This list of action items might include meetings to attend, calls to make, emails to return, research to compile, writing assignments and all the other work specific to your job. To aid in your productivity, it is important to note what actions must get done by the end of the day so you don’t lose your job, and prioritize those important actions.

Even when you’re diligent and focused on getting your entire action list completed, unexpected events can derail you — the fire alarms can sound in the building or your building’s power can be disrupted or another work priority can take top billing. When the actions you must finish don’t get done, you have to go with an alternate plan.

The best contingency plan is one where you never need a contingency plan, but deadlines and botched work days are unavoidable in most workplaces. In lieu of avoidance, these are the common contingency plans I recommend employing when you must get things done and you’re behind schedule —

  • Prevention: Block open time on your schedule. Not all industries allow for this, but in my current job I can usually leave 30 minutes each afternoon blank on my schedule. I almost always have something pressing to finish during this time, but if I don’t I use it for mindless work like filing or brainstorming blog post ideas. These open 30 minutes help me to better handle the unexpected disruptions over the course of the day.
  • Power through. Obviously, you have the option to stay late and work into the night to finish your activities. This isn’t always an option, though, especially if the deadline was earlier in the day or if you need to be somewhere more pressing. It’s also not an option if you have been staying late for weeks and your overall productivity is being hampered by your late nights. Some employers allow you to take work home, and when done occasionally this might be a solution for you.
  • Communicate and negotiate new deadlines. The minute you know you’re behind schedule and likely to miss the deadline, you need to communicate this to the people who are depending on you and negotiate a new deadline. You may need to update your project manager, boss, and/or client so they can adjust their schedules accordingly. The earlier you can notify individuals of your delay, the better. Sometimes estimations for how long something will take are wrong and this isn’t going to change through the entire project. Advanced communication about delays, when done infrequently and when you really are in dismay, can help you to be seen as a valued and trusted worker.
  • Ask for help. If your job and work product allow for it, ask for help from coworkers or assistants. (In most workplace environments, making a request of another’s time does mean that you should help that person at a future point if your assistance is requested.) I’ve been in jobs where we’ve hired temporary employees to help prepare for conferences doing activities that must get done but don’t require special skill sets to complete. Simply requesting your boss help you to set new priorities can be an effective activity if you have a mentoring-style relationship with your boss.
  • Delegate. Similar to asking for help, but in an environment where it is appropriate for you to assign work to others. Or, if you realize you are not the best person to complete the job, you can outsource the work to a person with the right skill set.

What common contingency plans do you employ when your work day and deadlines are blown to bits? Please share your strategies in the comments.

8 Comments for “Contingency planning for botched work days and deadlines”

  1. posted by OogieM on

    My biggest strategy is to carry my cell phone and my leatherman tool with me all the time.

    Often what blows my day out of the water is some sort of emergency. A sheep is sick or injured, ram stuck in fence and I need assistance to extricate him, ditches are flooding, etc. Having the cell phone means I can be out with the sick animal and receive triage and first aid assistance from the vet by phone, I can call for help from any close by neighbor, I can alert the rest of the ditch company shareholders that flooding is happening and get folks with shovels and backhoes en route while I am still assessing the problem or working on one piece of it.

    My cell phone also has my calendar and my entire GTD style system of next actions by context. I can quickly review what I will be delaying and can contact people who are affected. I have a lot of reference material on my phone so I can look up critical facts (how old is this sheep, what was the last vaccination, does this animal represent a critical bloodline and therefore worth an emergency vet call or do I need to handle it on my own). While I don[t normally use it for e-mail if the situation warrants it I can send e-mails from the field and also can look up stuff on the internet.

    The leatherman is critical for cutting fences to prevent a lamb from strangling who got tangled, twist a few wires to hold a broken gat temporarily in place, cut hay strings and a thousand other uses. There is no time to go run for a wire cutter if you find a problem so it pays to carry basic tools with you at all times. My critical tools are always with me in a pouch on my belt.

  2. posted by WilliamB on

    My best single contingency plan, and it is universally applicable, is not to wait till the last minute.

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @WilliamB — Oh, if only life were that easy. If only we could avoid deadlines completely and if emergency “get it done right now” action items didn’t pop up without notice! That would be universally accepted 🙂 I’d universally accept it!! But try telling a baby it isn’t coming RIGHT NOW or your relatives to have their physical emergencies at another, more convenient time for you … life is anything but predictable …

  4. posted by Carla on

    Another important point in contingency planning is not to let yourself be the “only” person who knows how to do a particular task. Rather than providing job security, it means that you will always be the one working late to get the job done. I work in software development, and it isn’t fun when the only person who knows what is going on is off on vacation or out sick for a week.

  5. posted by Kaz on

    If it’s a deadline that’s external to me, I create a plan with deadline A (external deadline minus 25% of the time given) and deadline B (actual external deadline).

    Then I work to meet Deadline A, knowing that I have a time contingency that will hopefully absorb overruns for items out of my control.

    As a general contingency, I work on the idea that there’s no one perfect answer for everything and have a main option and a secondary option for each stage. Then if something fails to happen, I have a second option ready to be considered and actioned.

  6. posted by WilliamB on

    @Erin – so, so true. But this was the only broadly-applicable contingency plan I could think of. Because whatever comes up at the last minute, is easier to handle if I haven’t left other things till the last minute. And guess who has a tendency to leave certain things till the last minute?

  7. posted by Nana on

    When in trouble or in doubt,
    Run in circles, scream and shout.

    It seems to work for a fellow I know…he does this and his ‘assistant’ comes running and fixes things. [I say assistant, although I think of her as his mommy / maid / enabler]

  8. posted by DivaJean on

    I set all my monthly report deadlines for a few days early so I can be a superstar and have them always presented on time.

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