Can you relate to either of these project schedule issues?
a. A manager’s view: Deadlines and estimates are unreliable, and this impacts customer satisfaction and revenue. “We give our teams priorities every week; why don’t they deliver?”
b. A team member’s view: We tell management how much time will be needed, but we are told this is too much, so we hunker down and do our best knowing that all of the issues will come to a head eventually. Then priorities change anyway, so estimates are not really important.
One key reason that deadlines are missed is that decisions on priorities and resources are treated as critical only for the current hot project. The consequences elsewhere of priority and resource changes are either not looked at, assumed to be minimal, not communicated by the team, or simply too painful to address.
Here is the basic flow when things don’t go so well:
- Initial estimates are not well thought out or based on the work, risk, or team capacity. Little or no check is made for estimate accuracy.
- Commitments are based on specific resources being assigned. When those resources are pulled, there is little assessment of the consequences (because no one mentions the consequences in concrete terms).
- Changes in priorities cause committed work to be unfinished. When work is incomplete, the first course of action is to change priorities again. This loop repeats.
- Team members either don’t know how (or don’t feel comfortable) providing good estimate data or communicating the impact of priority and resource changes. Team members and staff are employed for their technical skills, not communication or negotiation skills.
- Since speaking up about project management issues is not their expertise or within their comfort zone — and they may have been slammed when they tried before — they put their heads down, code and hope.
- With no feedback, managers believe that the changes in resources and priority will have little negative impact and fully expect all deadlines to be met. They know deep down that this is wishful thinking, but it has never hurt them personally before, so it won’t now. Anyway, no team member said they couldn’t meet the new priorities, and we did communicate that money (a.k.a “employment”) is tight.
With no communication, no estimation review, no review of the consequences of changing things, then accountability can be pushed away from the cause, leaving all parties to do their best but stay in their comfort zone (see picture). Ahhh. Bliss. (Well, not really.)
Anything sound familiar?
Mathematically, the painful issue is: Project X deadline = Work / 0.00 (allocated resources). There are really no logical words that can explain how X will get done.
What do great managers do to achieve deadlines?
- Teach people how to develop reliable estimates.
- Review estimates for accuracy with respect to effort, capacity and risk. They know that the teams might not have these estimation skills.
- Truly decide what work is important (compared to half-decide).
- Assign resources, have team members critique the final estimates, and then leave them alone to do the work. (Actually, world-class managers guarantee that the resources will be left alone, because they want the work done.)
- Take 100% responsibility for the impact when a change in resources or priority must occur (and it does). No games and no pretend.
- Since they need to be ready for change, they look ahead at resources that will become available and external resources that can fill temporary gaps.
What do great teams do?
- Learn that providing feedback is essential to their deadlines, well-being and trust.
- Always provide several achievable schedule options to the boss so that the boss is not stuck with just one to agonize over. They learn that the boss’s reaction is different when he or she is provided with different data.
- Assess and communicate risk.
- Move into, and internalize, a new constructive comfort zone that they never believed was possible.
How do great managers not get fired if they are so honest? Surely they are disliked for not promising everything?
Great managers learn that their integrity and professionalism earn them credibility for being reliable, and they know that customers, team members and big bosses care about reliability and delivery excellence more than anything else. They also realize that the opposite leads to deadlines being missed, quality suffering, customers being mad, teams being stressed out and them being labeled as “unreliable.”
Struggling managers and teams stay in their comfort zone for decades at a time. Intuition says, “Tell them what they want to hear and hide behind some email.” This changes when a new player with a new standard shows up.
Great managers and team members rise among the pack. They don’t mistake desirable schedules with achievable schedules. Counter-intuition says, “Tell them what they need to hear and manage expectations now.”
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