Deadlines – the great motivators

I went to “Joint School” on Friday, our local pre-surgery induction for hip replacement patients.  I came away really fired up with all the things I need to get done before I go in for surgery in 2 weeks.

So what is it that this deadline has triggered?

  1. Priority – I now have a list of things that must be done, a list of things that should be done, and a list of things I’d like to do.
  2. Focus – I’ve immediately cancelled all the “nice to haves” that require significant time and distract me from hitting the deadline
  3. Timeliness – I’ve already done lots of things that I’ve known needed doing for months but kept postponing due to “high priorities”
  4. Energy – I will be the one to suffer if I don’t hit the deadline, and  I’ve discovered that lots of “huge” tasks have been finished pretty quickly and easily because they have to be done now, rather than shuffled off into the future
  5. Personal effectiveness – because a change is BETTER than a rest. Swapping to another task when I run out of steam re-energises me while doing something useful

Setting deadlines is a key skill in project management, and if done well can stimulate the team very powerfully.

Are deadlines always so effective?

Well, no. Deadlines can be hugely demotivating when:

  • They are not real – they have been created by an executive or manager to “motivate” the team
  • They are too tight:
    • perhaps they are labelled “stretch” but failure to achieve them is unacceptable
    • perhaps they’re simply impossible
  • They are too far in the future:
    • breeding complacency and indolence
    • relying on staff to create their own interim deadlines and motivate themselves
  • They are too abstract – the team can’t relate emotionally to hitting or missing the deadline, so their energies are not tapped into.

Ensuring these do not happen is the responsibility of business leadership, portfolio and programme management, and a critical requirement for such leaders is to have their fingers on the pulse of reality, and occasionally lift their noses from Excel spreadsheets and abstract numbers.

Over the last few years I have seen 2 glaring examples of deadlines being set without a sound justification for considering them viable, then the leaders going ballistic on being told, when the feasibility studies were completed, that the targets were not achievable.

The other end of the spectrum is as bad – many years earlier, I saw a project team that had been set up 6 years before the regulatory deadline, and had spent 5 years making very limited progress. This demanded a huge effort to rescue the project at the last moment

Business leaders need to think very hard about using deadlines to motivate teams – they can work very powerfully both towards success and right into failure!


The Elephant in the room – delay in project start

Isn’t it frightening that we take delays to project start so much for granted that we don’t recognize one of the most common causes of “failure” in projects?

Over the last 2 weeks I’ve been talking to many project professional, at the University of Manchester, in a major construction company and at the recent APM conference on Risk Management at Alderley Park (which was excellent, by the way).

We were all discussing the things that go wrong with projects, but the startling point that everyone was making is that late project start against an agreed plan is the most common problem, and that it usually threatens project success before it even starts.

It’s bad enough when the start date slips and the end date matches it, as the context of the project has changed (summer becomes winter, resource is redeployed while waiting etc) but what is even worse is that the target date often slips less than the start date, if at all.

As project professionals, we give realistic estimates for the cost and duration of our projects, only to find that we have to do most of them more quickly with less resource, in more demanding circumstances.

Late starts to projects are not a project management failure, they are a commercial issue, and project managers rarely have any influence over this, but we have to do the best we can and are accused of failure if we fail to do the impossible.

This is due to poor accountability within organisations – if Procurement were held to account for delaying the start of the project  and its consequent failure,  instead of being measured on penny-pinching and trying to squeeze out the last penny on price, things might get better. The cost or project delay needs to be understood and measured, and commercial teams held accountable.

None of that helps the project manager, of course. I’m currently working up my thoughts on this as part of a new programme for the University of Manchester and some industrial clients.



Trust – the final frontier?

I’ve been forced to consciously reappraise the value of trust in project management after taking it for granted and recently being wrong-footed when it wasn’t there.

Linda Bourne gives a good insight in her blog.

I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own based on recent experiences.

I believe there is a systematic, almost cultural, level of trust in many organizations, linked to the age of the organization and usually conditioned by the reward (for success)/punishment(for failure) balance. Young organizations tend to default to trusting behaviours, but long-established organizations tend to default to distrust due to painful memories of punishment for failure. This leads to “arse covering” to the detriment of project  progress.

There is also, quite specifically, trust in the project leader. Such trust comes from several factors:

  • Reputation and experience
  • Personality and charisma
  • Success being seen to be achieved (milestones etc)
  • Familiar ways of working – working within normal practices

The first 3 are blindingly obvious, but managing complex projects in environments with no track record of successfully delivering them creates a major problem on the 4th point: how do you maintain confidence in a way of working that is not the norm? This requires enormous focus on communication and education of your stakeholders, and still may not be a success – failure to work in the familiar way, no matter how inappropriate, may break trust under pressure.