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I work in an IT Help Desk role, and I often get requests that have vague "due-dates". So maybe a Project Manager wants a large database pull, which will take at least a week of my time.

But they don't say "I want it by November 2" etc. And I can't directly ask "When do you need this by?"(it's not an urgent task.. , i.e. something they want to analyze, etc)

How do I politely figure out when the deadline is?

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Why can't you directly ask the due date, if one isn't provided for you? –  Thomas Owens Oct 28 '12 at 23:27
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@ThomasOwens Because I feel that they'd want me to "do it as soon as possible"... but I have other tasks. –  Adel Oct 28 '12 at 23:28
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@Adel you can prompt a reasonable response by proposing a due date viz : is friday(three days from now OK)?. They may counter and it becomes a negotiation. Or they leave it there and you have time to focus on other stuff –  kolossus Oct 29 '12 at 5:47
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Even if they want you to do it "as soon as possible", giving a deadline is only professional. You both have things to do and you both plan your time. –  TC1 Oct 29 '12 at 9:12
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I remember my father firing back at all the ASAP requests by (deliberately) reading them as "As soon as you are able to get to them" instead of the "Now Now Now" that people expected –  Sean Cheshire Oct 29 '12 at 21:04

8 Answers 8

up vote 30 down vote accepted

As soon as the work is assigned to you, if you don't have a deadline, get one. It sounds like you're in a supporting role and might support a number of other people in the business. Every task that you have should be assigned a due date. If you are assigned work that doesn't have a due date with it, you need to ask for it.

I'd phrase the request similar to:

What is the latest date that I can get this done and still have you meet your schedules?

Phrasing your need like this will indicate that you care about helping the project you are supporting to meet their needs, but also begins to indicate that you have other work with other due dates.

If you need to support some kind of work prior to the project's staff taking over, the project manager should be able to figure out what date is the latest date on which you can turn your work over to someone on the project team to avoid schedule delays.

I'd also consider getting your manager involved to streamline the process, especially if you are frequently given tasks with no due dates or with unreasonable due dates. Every request to the IT department should have a "complete no later than" date associated with it. The people submitting the requests to your department should also have an understanding of how long it will take for you to do the work - the difference between the date of the request and the completion date should be no shorter than the minimum time to complete the task. Every project requiring your support must realize that you are supporting multiple projects and needs to communicate their needs as early as possible so the time and resources needed can be scheduled effectively.

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If the answer to this question is "as soon as possible", this means as soon as YOU CAN. Always, and i mean always, look into the matter and your schedule and propose a due date. The other person might have no idea how long it takes to complete the task. –  unmircea Oct 29 '12 at 9:21

I might be wrong, but it sounds to me like you have multiple PM's all giving you work to do — in that case I don't think you should be asking what the deadline is at all, I think you should be redirecting your clients to your immediate manager whose job it is to prioritise (and assign deadlines to) all of your work.

The problem with getting "deadlines" from multiple people is that every single person will always 100% believe that their request is more important than everyone elses, and they wont know or care that you're getting requests from four or five other people at the same time. So you have a single person who all requests go through, and that single person needs enough pull to be able to prioritise one persons request over all of the others.

See also the answer on this thread: "saying no to project managers?".

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+1 Having been in this exact position in the past, if your immediate manager isn't getting involved to prioritize, deflect, and tell people that they will need to wait because you are needed elsewhere more urgently, they aren't keeping up with their job properly. –  alroc Oct 29 '12 at 12:41
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And how should your manager decide how to prioritise? –  beetstra Oct 29 '12 at 15:19

You don't try to figure out when the deadline is, you just ask. Any speculation on your part will probably be false, and even if you get it right once in awhile, deadlines aren't really something you should be speculating on.

Just ask. If the answer is "do it as soon as possible", then do it as soon as possible.

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Others have already mentioned, there is no reason to hesitate asking on task priority. However, there is another consideration that appears to slip from the answers:

You should estimate the task prior to agreeing on the deadline.
Since any task is a result of mutual agreement, you should not blindly accept any deadline. Instead,

  1. Try estimating the task, finding what resources (including time) you need to perform it;
  2. Although estimation should be usually a high-priority task, it should not interrupt your other assignments. If it does, make an estimation a separate task and negotiate it;
  3. If the task is splittable, don't ignore this fact as analyzing parts would improve the accuracy of your estimate;
  4. After the estimate is ready, come up with the solutions given in the other answers;
  5. If the given task requires delaying other tasks assigned to you before, don't forget to negotiate this fact with those who are waiting for your results for other tasks, as they might not be happy to know you are late.
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Deadlines and ASAP aren't very useful as a planning tool: Making the deadline means compromising something else. The decision needs to include an understanding of what compromises are involved.

Often you are in the best position to judge the relative urgency of all the work available to you, but it's your boss's call how you prioritize your work. You give your boss the information:

Task A is important but will take a long time; I should do 80% of it in 20% of the time, then move on.

Task B is not as important, but it's really quick; I should do it first.

Then it's up to your boss to correct you based on a broader understanding of the needs of the company:

Yes, do Task B first, but then move on to all of Task A, even though it will take a long time.

However, in the case you're asking about, it seems like you don't know how to prioritize this work, so you ask:

I think Task A will take this long, but I'm not sure how I should prioritize it relative to Task B, C, and D. What do you think?

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You should not be concened about asking for a required-by date - you're just collecting information in order to serve your customer better.

You do need to be careful about agreeing to a date, and you can't do this until you know -

  1. how long the job will take, and
  2. when you will have that time available.

Once you have those two bits of data, you can safely commit to a specific date.

So, when you are asking the customer when they want it by, you are either just collecting information, and not making any commitment (make that clear) or you'll be able to tell the customer whether you can meet the date or not.

If you can't honestly commit to the date the customer wants, then some negotiation needs to happen, about what tasks you do when. Whoever does that, they need to understand the overall priorities.

Also, sorry, but I think you're best simply asking when it's required, rather than asking for 'the latest date you need this' or whatever. Just be straight and open.

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I've had to deal with managers that sound like the customers you appear to be dealing with. I always make certain to get three things from them:

  • What's the due date on this?
  • What is my deliverable?
  • What tasks should I drop to make this happen?

The last might go to your direct manager, but all three are important. Most managers / customers will assume that all tickets are important until they're forced to consider all three aspects of a task.

The first is easy to be flippant about ('Yesterday!'), but the second and third force them to articulate their issue and kill their darlings. More than once, a ticket has been assigned to me with the highest priority, but pulled after the manager realized that they didn't know what they actually wanted, or that they weren't willing to stop work on another ticket to make that ticket happen.

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How you go about this should have been addressed by your supervisor since I doubt he/she wants to be involved in the planning of each task you're given.

Estimate how long it will take you to complete in the context of your current work load. Submit this date to the requestor. You will either get a confirmation or another request for an earlier date (possibly with or without a reason.).

You should have some sort of arrangement with your immeidate supervisor on how to prioritize your work. It may not be a formally documented process, but just what you've picked-up over the course of time. This can vary by who/what department made the request, the project, time of year, etc. You can only base this on the information you have and how you see it fits into this model. You may have to get permission from another requestor to back up their time estimate.

Avoid giving the impression that you push everything back and get nothing done on time or to avoid certain types of tasks.

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