A friend of mine told me about a recent conversation he had with the boss. Due to circumstances beyond his control, the timetable for major a project originally slated to be completed by this time next year has been truncated to a due date some time in November. It seems someone on the executive team made a mistake and to rectify it, the project needs to be completed immediately.
Despite the fact that it will likely be impossible to accomplish in the new time box (I know, it's really hard to believe that anyone would rationally expect a 12-months long project could be completed in about 12 weeks), in a conversation he had with his boss a few days ago, the conversation went something like this:
"How are we doing on the new schedule?" said the boss.
"The team is doing the best they can, but I'm doubtful that we can get 12 months worth of work done in as many weeks," he said.
"You know if we don't get this project done, there will be lay-offs," said the boss in an accusatory tone.
"We'll do the best we can," said my friend.
"That's not the answer I want," said the boss. "Tell me you're going to get this project done."
In fairness, to help, the company has allocated additional resources and brought in new team members to achieve the objectives by the new deadline, but shaving nearly 11 months of a 12 month timeline just doesn't sound reasonable to me. Unfortunately, when my friend tries to explain the situation to his key stakeholder, it falls on deaf ears.
"If you don't get this done," he says, "there will be layoffs."
Meanwhile, the stress is starting to take its toll on the team.
Over the course of the last month, they made great progress. The extra team members working extra hours have accomplished more than would normally be expected, but it isn't enough. What's more, I can't imagine that management really believes this is even possible.
At some level, I admit that this is the life most project leaders live every day. "Tell me you're going to get this done," isn't that uncommon. What's more, often teams pull it all together and do amazing things. That's likely the case with my friend and his team. Nevertheless, doing more with less has really become doing more and more with less and less to the point that nobody has the ability to set realistic expectations anymore.
Is it possible that project teams are universally suffering from pulling a rabbit out of their hat too many times? Have we reached the point where we've exhausted our ability to reallistically look at the work that needs to be done and our capacity to do it and organizations just bite off more than they can chew as a matter of course.
I think we can all agree, at some point this reduces the teams ability to do good work and rather encourages teams to simply do whatever it takes to look like they're working.
What is your advice to my friend? How would you deal with an impossible to achieve expectation? Have you ever experienced something like this?
Being the Olympics junkie I am, I spent part of my afternoon watching the US Women's Volleyball team play a team of very talented athletes from Turkey. "To me one of the important characteristics of a great team is how they perform when there is nothing on the line," U.S. Olympic Women's Volleyball Team Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "I thought our team really honored the moment of competition tonight. Like the true Olympians they are, they came and battled tonight. I am really proud of that and happy with the performance. I think we even got a little better tonight in a few areas. This is what we are always trying to do with each match—get better."
Even though the US Team had already secured the top seed in going into the quarterfinals, they didn't roll over and play a rest game. They fought hard to remain undefeated against the also undefeated Turkish team. As quoted on the USOC Press Box yesterday, "We played for ourselves," said Captain Lindsey Berg in regards to having already qualified as the top seed into the quarterfinals regardless of the match results. "We didn't want to dilly-dally because there would be no benefit in that. We needed to keep in our rhythm."
It doesn't take much to make the comparison to the badminton fiasco, but I won't say any more about that.
I think this is an attitude that project teams should imulate. The US team went into Sunday undefeated—as did the Turks. Both teams fought to win, making it exciting for the spectators to watch and the teams to play. They psyche of a winner is important, always playing to win (even if you don't) is what makes good teams great. I think that applies to any endeavor, including project teams.
Have you ever seen a scope change or compromises in project objectives initiatied for no other reason than to make the project easier? To meet an arbitrary deadine diminishing the value of an otherwise important project because the team needed to cut corners so someone could say, "We got it done"?
I'm not suggesting that sometimes adjusting expectations isn't necessary, but the more a team compromises, the easier it becomes. Creating an environment where people can perform at their best requires that we have high expectations for everyone on the team. I've observed that most of the time, this results in peak performance by everyone on the team. I'm convinced that people want to do their best. Nobody woke up this morning and thought, "Today I really wanna suck." Our job is to create an atmosphere where they can perform at their best. Part of that is creating a culture like the US Women's Volleyball Team, where it's important to give our best in every game.
What are you doing to foster an environment where your team can perform at their best?
"[T]here have been doping scandals, bribery scandals and officiating scandals, many of them fully emerging only years after the fact," writes Ken Belson for the New York Times. "The latest Olympic scandal—involving shuttlecocks and dumped badminton matches—was pretty much hiding in plain sight."
Wednesday, four women's doubles teams, including two teams from South Korea, a team from China, and a team from Indonesia, were disqualified for intentionally trying to lose their matches. "The eight players were found to have tried to lose their matches intentionally, apparently because they had determined that a loss would allow them to play a weaker oponent in the next round," writes Belson.
Pulling up a YouTube video of the events in question, I couldn't believe my eyes. How does something like this happen in the Olympics? Unfortunately, for Olympic badminton, it doesn't sound like it's that unusual. "Badminton officials introduced a preliminary round at the Olympics this year so that each team could play at least three times and not risk traveling thousands of miles only to be eliminated in the first match," continues Belson. "But athletes and coaches have always looked for any available advantage, including throwing a match to save energy or to face and easier opponenet in the next round."
Why am I writing about Olympic badminton? I think it teaches us something about human nature that we need to consider as we lead project teams.
It appears that a flaw in the rules gave these teams an incentive to lose. The opportunity to advance to an easier round overcame any desire to compete at their best. Are there practices in your organization that incentivize poor performance? Most of the time, it's likely not as blatant as the latest Olympics fiasco, but are there accepted project management and leadership practices that hinder performance?
What would cause a competitor who had likely prepared for years to compete at the Olympics to humiliate herself and debase their event in such a way? Unfortunately, "The notion that players who have trained for years to get to the Olympics would willingly throttle back has reopened a fierce debate in the world of badminton, which for years has bubbled with accusations about well-timed withdrawls and suspiciously sloppy play," writes Belson
"And badminton was not the only sport in which teams trotted through a preliminary-round game," he writes. "On Tuesday, in Cardiff, Wales, the Japanese women's soccer team, the 2011 World Cup champion, played to a scoreless tie against a much weaker South African side."
Apparently the tie meant the Japanese could forego the next round and advance directly to the knockout round.
I thought these were the best atheletes in the world.
Building a stong and productive project team requires two things:
Sports teams and project teams have a lot in common. I just hope this type of behavior isn't one of those things. What are you doing to ensure that your methodology or leadership style doesn't get in the way of peak performance?
Like most everyone I know, I spent my Sunday afternoon watching the Olympics. I was a swimmer in high school and like most people in the U.S., I've been watching Michael Phelps and the U.S. Swim Team. On Sunday night, I watched the men's relay team's loss to France. It was an exciting race, but it was the way the team seemed to handle the loss that impressed me the most. Sure they were disappointed, but they were also upbeat. "We're all young, we'll be back."
That might not be his exact words, but I liked the sentiment. Setbacks are tough—particularly when they happen in crunch time. But like the Olympics, projects sometimes have those same setbacks. How we deal with them is more important than that they happen—because they will happen.
In a conversation I once had with a leading Gartner analyst, she said something like, "Projects are messy things. That's why we call them projects."
We were talking about risk and how projects always include some level of risk. The problem in many organizations today is that they are so risk averse that most ambitious projects are doomed before they even start. It's as if there's this unwritten code that suggests, "Yeah, we know this is a risky project, but we need to do it. Don't make any mistakes. This needs to come off without a hitch. No excuses."
Nobody can do their best work with a gun to their head (and that includes project teams).
I'm not suggesting that we ignore risks, but I am suggesting that they are a part of life that should be looked at honestly. In my opinion, risk mitigation isn't risk elimination. It's about looking at potential problems and planning on an action plan if things go wrong. And, I'm convinced that they often do—business leaders just don't like to talk much about it.
Most successful project leaders I know work hard to ensure that risk is identified, quantified, and accomodated within their project plan. They know that when things sometimes go wrong, the sky is not falling, it's simply time to regroup. Some of them even have business leaders who get that, unfortunately there are many that do not.
There is no easy answer for project managers who need to educate management about risk, how it is inherently part of project-based initiatives, and how to deal with problems when they arise. It takes time and repetition. However, the U.S. Men's Swim Team is a great example. "We're all young, we'll be back."
What are you doing to educate your organization about the risks associated with your projects? How do you plan to deal with the problems that will inevitably crop up?
I was speaking with a friend of mine recently who had just finished a really hard day. "Nobody likes me," she said. "I'm trying to keep an important project on track and it feels like everyone is avoiding me."
I think we've all experienced days like that. There are times when nobody on the project team likes the project manager much. It doesn't matter that she's trying to make sure the project everyone is working on is successful, they don't want to be reminded about what they haven't done or how others on the team are waiting for them to complete their part of the project so they can go forward.
I've given her my advice, but what do you do? How do you deal with team members that aren't pulling their weight or are putting the project in danger? Please submit your suggestions and we'll publish a list next week of the top ten ways to give your project team a kick in the pants (without coming across like Attilla the Hun).