Communications and Expectations
by Rick Brenner
Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
Just as Les was about to answer Anna, his desk phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID, looked up at Anna, and said, "It's him again. Should I answer?" He knew what she would say.
"Yeah," she said. "He probably knows we're here."
Les picked up the handset. "Yeah," he said. Nobody used Hello for internal calls anymore.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Photo courtesy NASA.
Anna couldn't hear much, but she didn't need to. The caller was their boss, and he was probably asking for yet another briefing before the review the next afternoon. The conversation went on for a while, until Les looked up at Anna.
"Three PM OK with you?"
Anna nodded. Les said "OK" into the phone and put the handset back in its cradle. Hello was already gone, and Good-Bye was well on its way.
He turned to Anna. "That's lucky," he said sarcastically. "We're just so bored here sitting around doing nothing."
They both laughed, but it wasn't funny.
When projects falter,
demands for status
escalateWhen projects falter, demands for status and explanations escalate. Sometimes satisfying these requests interferes with the work, but at least we can understand why people worry. What's more puzzling is how this happens to projects that aren't in trouble.
Perceptions of an absence of progress usually drive such concerns. Here's Part I of a catalog of strategies for managing pressure by enhancing perceptions of progress. See "Managing Pressure: The Unexpected," Point Lookout for December 20, 2006, and "Managing Pressure: Milestones and Deliveries," Point Lookout for December 27, 2006, for more.
- Choose names carefully
- If a particular task encountered serious trouble in a previous project, re-using its name in a current project invites people to use their past experiences in assessing current risks.
- Ironically, we often do better the second time around. Choose names that are relatively free of negative baggage.
- When in trouble, don't talk — deliver
- When there's little new to demonstrate, project leaders sometimes resort to words to convey a sense of progress. But during extended intervals between demonstrations of new capability, words interfere with perceptions of progress.
- Because demonstrating new capability frequently does help, reschedule to provide something useful as soon as possible.
- Short schedules help perceptions
- Long schedules undermine perceptions of progress. This phenomenon appears to be psychological in origin, and it applies wherever customers have to wait for what they really want.
- Schedule projects to complete as fast as possible. If necessary, decompose a large project into a sequence (or a partially parallel set) of smaller projects. The effectiveness of this approach might be one reason why agile methods are so popular, because they call for frequent deliveries of useful functionality.
Managing perceptions isn't just politics. Since pressure is usually counterproductive, these strategies can truly benefit your projects. I'll say more next time, but I'll pause here because I want to send this part to you as soon as possible. Top Next Issue
Micromanagement is a common source of pressure. For insights on micromanagers and micromanaging, see "When Your Boss Is a Micromanager," Point Lookout for December 5, 2001; "There Are No Micromanagers," Point Lookout for January 7, 2004; "Are You Micromanaging Yourself?," Point Lookout for November 24, 2004; and "How to Tell If You Work for a Nanomanager," Point Lookout for March 7, 2007.
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See also Workplace Politics, Conflict Management and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.
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