Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 51;   December 20, 2006: Managing Pressure: The Unexpected

Managing Pressure: The Unexpected

by

When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing pressure.

Sponsors, customers, and management all expect projects to deliver what they promised, for the price promised, by the date promised. When they perceive that progress isn't in line with expectations, they can apply pressure to the project team, and that pressure can itself become a hindrance.

Freeway damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta, California, Earthquake

Freeway damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta, California, earthquake. Unexpected events often have unexpected consequences.
Photo courtesy US National Geophysical Data Center.

Here are some insights about the unexpected that can help with managing and preventing pressure. See "Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations," Point Lookout for December 13, 2006, and "Managing Pressure: Milestones and Deliveries," Point Lookout for December 27, 2006, for more.

Educate everyone about the inevitability of setbacks
When a setback happens, perceptions of progress can change permanently, even if the setback is eventually overcome, and even if time lost is recovered. If customers or sponsors have to report the setback to people who have great organizational power, they are sometimes subject to personal consequences.
Outside the context of any specific project, educate sponsors and managers about setbacks. Explain that because project work has either never been done before, or has never been done by this organization, setbacks are inevitable. When setbacks happen, be open about them. Hiding them or spinning them puts your own credibility at risk.
Be wary of near-delivery setbacks
Setbacks just prior to delivery are especially problematic. Customers might have made preparations for the delivery and those arrangements constitute both financial and psychological commitment. A setback just prior to delivery creates embarrassment, frustration, and irritation, which can lead to distrust and perceived lack of progress that are otherwise unwarranted.
Monitor internal status carefully just prior to any delivery. As soon as you know of problems that put delivery at risk, pass the information along. Help people mitigate the consequences of slips, and commit to all this in the project plan.
Keep loads uniform
Setbacks just
prior to delivery
are especially
problematic
Uniform loads create a sense of steady progress. Load variations, especially spikes, degrade assessments of progress. For instance, if a project undergoes a crisis requiring an out-of-plan management decision, management endures a load spike. Afterwards, the incident isn't forgotten - it usually lingers in the form of degraded perceptions of progress. Similar effects occur within the project team.
When trouble looms, inform management early, to give them time to prepare for decision-making. Balance the loads on project team members carefully, making schedule changes as necessary — if you can — to keep loads uniform.
Don't expect breakthroughs to erase anxiety
Breakthroughs usually seem less significant than setbacks of similar magnitude. Hyping breakthroughs to enhance morale, or to correct perceptions about progress, probably won't work — people tend to discount such announcements because they tend to serve the project's leaders' interests.
Use breakthroughs instead to enhance the status of the people who achieve them. Honor them and recognize them. You'll do more for morale that way than you can accomplish by trying to send the all-is-now-well message to skeptical audiences.

Next time we'll look at managing pressure by means of defining milestones, deliveries, and their spacing. Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Pressure: Milestones and Deliveries  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.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

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