Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Tag Archives: stress

Casualty of unrealistic deadlines

Ever worked on a project where you pushed the team and yourself to the limits and still felt like struggling to keep your head above water? The likelihood is the project you have taken on (more likely your organisation has signed up for) has been underestimated for effort. Another possibility is that resources were available for the project later than originally planned. In either case, you need to consider the impact on your project and how best to proceed.

The first response to this predicament is to work longer to catch up on promised timelines. That only works for short bursts for some recovery in timeline. Prolonged period of long hours is not sustainable. Working tired means the brain simply does not have the same capacity to consider various scenarios when designing your outputs. In various industries it could lead to different compromised outputs. In software development it could lead to poor design and defects, in government policy development it may cause poor policy, in production lines or medical professions it could cause fatalities. Even if none of these transpire, some may choose to move on. As happens with re-structures, it is your best people that will move on.

You must remember people are your best assets. Breaking them for one project, means inevitable problems for the next one. With the squeeze on resources due to the economic turndown, a lot of people have got used to working over capacity for various reasons – threat to job security, professional pride despite lack of resources among a few. There is however an emotional cost for that. Constant over exposure leads to poor work, make people sick easily. People are more easily irritable and less considerate of others. People’s personal lives suffer and they bring those baggages to work. The work environment suffers, as does productivity.

The biggest casualty of all is innovation dies off. Pre-requisite for innovation is capacity. When everyone is working beyond their limits, there is no room for this. Innovation suffers even if you have people working to constant capacity, as that too does not leave room for experimentation and an element of risk-taking. Even if your organisation starts off being a leader in its field, this kind of work practice will soon ensure others catch up and pass, while you try to find the wood for the trees.

It is easier to point out the problems than trying to correct them. If the organisation is making good money, then the odds are management will be reluctant to change patterns. I cannot put my hand on heart and say I have never been sucked in by this. The most effective way I have found is to plan for 80% productivity of available time when you plan projects. There is always something that needs doing that is typically not factored into project estimates … admin work, sickness, learning, knowledge sharing. If you fall behind it gives you room to catch up by restricting some of these for a period of time, without having to send people over the edge.

Post implementation reviews are a good time to review your practices. Ask the project members to provide feedback and encourage open communication. Then again, when time is at a premium, these reviews are usually skipped. This can be a devil’s own circle. Review your estimation processes continually. Past experience is the best guide for future. Review if there are specific phases of projects that are being under-estimated, type of costs not taken into account properly. It may be that some staff may need up-skilling to avoid the same mistakes. Training needs identified should not be to chastise people, but to acknowledge their willingness to step up from the crowd and help their growth.

Working constantly to unrealistic deadlines creates a goodwill debt for the organisation. Most good employees will accommodate a little bit of it. Eventually, it will come home to roost. A good leader will recognise not only the realities of today, but also will have a feel for tomorrow.

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What are human factors in projects?

I had recently been doing a lot of travel for work. As each assignment comes to an end, I can’t wait to get home. Each travel wears you down. So much so, that I haven’t had the energy to put up a post for nearly three weeks. I had been contemplating what impact it has on my work. Does productivity and quality of work deepens on human factors?

Think about the group of people that work most under stress. That has to be people serving in the armed forces. There are plenty of movies made of their training regimes and action in the fog of war. When I look deeper, it is the footsoldiers that usually take the brunt of the extreme physical punishment. These are the people that you want to blindly follow orders. People making strategic and tactical decisions are not part of this lot. They are housed in very (comparatively) nice surroundings in headquarters. These are the people you want with a clear head and not weighed down by tiredness. They will have already been weighed down by responsibility.

Thinking back to project scenarios, in some industries it is not very different. I can think of manufacturing production line workers. You don’t want them thinking too much, just to do things in a repetitive manner. That is how you judge productivity. In other industries, it won’t quite cut it. In a creative industry like fashion design or software development it is the clear thought and ideas that you want to encourage. Simply sowing more fabrics or writing more lines of code isn’t going to get you anywhere.

If there is one thing that kills productivity, that is uncertainty. Uncertainty can come in many forms. The most common one you will see is re-structuring of business units, or organisations. Whatever anyone says, there is a limit to the amount and pace of change people can cope with. Beyond that, they stop caring about tasks on hand and are busy trying to steer a course through the mire. In many cases, what happens is the best and brightest will leave, because they are able to, and the organisation is left with those who cannot leave!

Issues with personal lives or friction between colleagues can have equally destructive influence. When you plan your project scope and likely execution timeline, these factors are usually not taken into account. The assumption is with all things being equal, it will even out over the course of the project. Unfortunately, when these issues crop up, things can go downhill very quickly. While stress related productivity loss won’t happen in a day, it may have built up over a period of time and by the time your project starts, wheels may be wobbling.

Project Managers are primarily responsible for monitoring and controlling projects, but they also need to show leadership in knowing the people in the projects. You may not be their line manager, but having a relationship at a more personal level will ensure your project has a higher chance of success.

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