It feels like a no-win situation – you have a customer demanding that their project be completed by a given date and you’ve got a team that is criticizing you for being schedule obsessed.
This scenario is a good example of the tightrope balancing act that separates a good project manager from alligator bait. To satisfy the customer, the project manager might be tempted to focus on schedule compliance, but this could end up alienating the team. Taken to the extreme, the team might get so disenchanted that they will conspire to ensure that the project ends up being late in spite of the project manager’s efforts. On the other hand, if the project manager focuses on ensuring the team is comfortable, the expected end date might slip which could be a career-limiting move.
So what are some ways to avoid either extreme?
1. Confirm that the expected end date is truly critical as early as possible. The thing about expectations is that resetting them is never pleasant, but it’s best done up front if there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the desired date is unrealistic. In the case of internal projects, it’s amazing how often customers can be their own worst enemy – by stating an ideal date during project initiation, but not clarifying whether or not there is flexibility on that date, the more senior the executive, the greater the likelihood that their wish will be taken as a command. One of the quickest methods of losing credibility with your team members is to force them to perform unnatural acts just to meet a “paper date”.
2. Review the priority of the project’s constraints with the team as part of the kickoff meeting (with the customer hopefully present) or as part of the on-boarding process for team members who join mid-stream and in both cases, make sure that the business impact of delays is well communicated. Give the team an opportunity to voice their concerns, but manage any “venting” to keep it constructive.
3. Work with the customer to prioritize requirements. Part of this process is asking the customer what would constitute a bare-minimum acceptable outcome. Assuming that this reduced scope can be completed within expected time frames, leverage agile methods to deliver priority-driven capability within fixed cost and time constraints. If the minimal scope is unlikely to be delivered when desired, explore options with the team and customer including adding resources or negotiating for a reduction in the minimal scope boundary.
4. Demonstrate a balanced approach when analyzing and communicating decisions – whether it is in formal artifacts such as decision requests or in informal team scrums, don’t get caught in the trap of focusing on schedule impact only. Even the most date-driven customer will have thresholds below which they would not want scope, quality or cost impacted. The more your team sees that you are not just beating the “schedule is king” drum, the greater the likelihood that they will embrace the relative importance of all constraints.
5. Foster positive relationships with the team’s resource managers. If the functional managers understand the importance of the project’s constraints and know that you are taking a balanced approach with decision making, they will be more likely to support you if team members come to them complaining about your apparent schedule obsession.
If being a project manager can sometimes feel like the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek, just remember Captain Kirk’s response on how he faced the simulation: “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.“